Farrah Fawcett’s Death Sheds Light on Anal Cancer

With the recent death of Farrah Fawcett, anal cancer has become an unlikely and uncomfortable topic of conversation across America. Since one of the cornerstones of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s mission is education, the Foundation wanted to provide some answers to questions about this often shunned cancer to help educate the public and lift some myths about this often-fatal cancer. By knowing some basic facts, people will be armed with knowledge and better equipped to be an advocate for taking steps to reduce their own cancer risk.

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Anal cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that occurs in the anal canal. Anal cancer is relatively rare, with 5,290 cases (2,100 occurring in men and 3,190 in women) diagnosed and about 700 deaths in the United States each year. Yet, statistics aside, there are still some things unknown, such as how to improve treatments. What is known is that anal cancer is strongly linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), the same virus that is also linked to cervical cancer and oral cancer.

Q. What is anal cancer?

  • Anal cancer is cancer located in the anus or anal canal, the tube at the end of the rectum through which bowel movements leave the body. It is not a common cancer. In 2009, 5,290 people will be diagnosed with anal cancer, compared to 146,970 people diagnosed with colorectal cancer, or cancer of the colon and rectum.

Q. How do people get anal cancer?

  • Anal cancer is strongly linked to certain types of HPV, a virus that spreads through anal sex with an HPV-infected partner. HPV is also linked to cervical cancer and oral cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and “you can’t always tell by looking” whether a person has HPV. While many people may become infected with HPV, most people’s immune systems get rid of the virus before it does any harm. Having anal sex with someone who has HPV may put a person at risk of becoming infected with HPV. Some people who are infected with HPV may develop growths inside or outside the anus, and some growths may develop into cancer. Anal cancer may also develop as cells in the lining of the anal canal start to grow and multiply in abnormal ways.

These factors also increase the risk for anal cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Having cervical cancer
  • Having a weakened immune system (such as from chemotherapy, organ transplantation or HIV infection)
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease, or hemorrhoids or other noncancerous growths

Q. How can people protect themselves from anal cancer?

  • The main factor associated with anal cancer is HPV, a sexually transmitted virus. Many studies have found HPV in anal cancer tumors. The most important way people can protect themselves from anal cancer is to avoid infection with HPV, by not having anal sex or by using condoms correctly and consistently during anal sex. However, condoms cannot give complete protection against HPV because the virus can infect areas that are not covered by a condom. Also, condoms are more likely to break during anal sex than during vaginal sex. Some researchers think that the HPV vaccine may help protect people against anal cancer, as it helps to protect women from cervical cancer. Not smoking is also protective, and people who stop smoking do reduce their risk for anal cancer.

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These answers draw on information from the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov and the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org.