What is Anal Cancer?
Anal cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the anal canal. The anal canal is the last part of digestive tract starting from the rectum and extending up to the anal orifice or anus through which faeces is expelled out of the body. Although uncommon, it is equally as deadly as more types of cancers affecting other parts of the body. Treatment options include a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy although surgery may be necessary if the cancer does not respond to these therapies.
Signs and Symptoms
Common presenting symptoms of anal cancer include:
- Sensation of fullness in the buttock region.
- Change in the bowel habit (either constipation or diarrhea).
- Palpable lump near the anus.
- Bleeding from the rectum.
- Anal itching or pain in the anal area.
Like cancer anywhere in the body, anal cancer may spread other organs. This is known as metastasis but it is rare with anal cancer. Metastasis is difficult to treat and the prognosis is poor once it has spread. The most common sites for metastasis from anal cancer are to the lungs and liver.
Causes of Anal Cancer
The cells in the body are divided in a regulated way and dies off at certain times. This ensures that older cells are removed and replaced with newer cells in a controlled manner. A number of different factors stimulate and inhibit these processes and keeps it in balance. It is when these controlling factors become distorted that cancerous growths can arises. Often the problem is a result of some genetic mutation and this cannot be reversed.
As a result there is excessive cell division, with abnormally structured cells that invade surrounding tissue and do not die off at specific periods of time. The exact cause of genetic mutations which lead to cancer is not known but for every type of cancer there specific risk factors that increase the likelihood of cancer arising. Common risk factors for anal cancer include:
- Advancing age (being more than 50 years).
- Having multiple sexual partners.
- Practising anal sex.
- Cigarette smoking.
- Infection by human papilloma virus (HPV).
- Drugs that suppress the immune system like prolonged use of corticosteroids.
- Diseases that weaken the immune system like HIV/AIDS.
- Radiation exposure, even radiotherapy to the pelvis for treating a prior cancer.
Treatment of Cancer of the Anus
Treatment of anal cancer depends upon the stage of the disease, general health condition of the patient and personal preference for a specific treatment option. Most cases of anal cancer are treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The combination of these two therapies have a better outcome.
- Chemotherapeutic drugs are given either given as an injection or as an oral pill to kill the cancer cells.
- Radiotherapy uses high powered X-rays to destroy the abnormal cells.
- Surgery is done for early stages of anal cancer and anal cancers which have not responded to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It is intended to remove the malignancy.