Treatment of Anal Cancer

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Much public attention was directed toward anal cancer with the illness of actress Farrah Fawcett, who died in 2009 due to complications of the disease. Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006 and underwent treatments in both the U.S. and Germany.

The treatment of cancer of the anus is different than the treatment of cancers around the anus. True anal cancers arise from the lining cells of the anus, the last portion of the gastrointestinal tract after the rectum. Cancers that arise outside of the anus in the skin are termed perianal skin cancers or anal margin cancers. These are treated as skin cancers and not as true anal cancers.

Although anal cancer is rare (comprising only 2.4% of all malignancies of the digestive tract), its incidence is on the rise. Over 7,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with anal cancer each year. While the exact cause of anal cancer hasn't been determined, researchers have shown that it is strongly associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is the virus that is known to cause cervical cancer in women.

As with any cancer, treatment is dependent upon the type, size, and extent of spread (stage) of the particular tumor as well as the overall health status of the patient. Surgery is no longer the standard treatment for most forms of anal cancer, although this option was used routinely in the past. Formerly, anal cancers were treated with a surgical procedure known as abdominoperineal resection (APR). The procedure required removal of the anorectum and the creation of a permanent colostomy, an opening made in the abdomen through which feces pass out of the body to be collected in a special bag attached to the body.