How Do You Get Anal Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 6/8/2022

Things to know about anal cancer and early signs and symptoms

The cells in the body grow, reproduce, and die under the controlled conditions.
Anal cancer is rare when compared to certain other cancers affecting the gut, such as colon cancer and rectal cancer.

The cells in the body grow, reproduce, and die under controlled conditions. When the cells start growing uncontrollably with a tendency to spread to other body parts, it is called cancer. Cancer that starts in the anus is called anal cancer. The anus is the terminal part of the digestive tract (gut). It is the channel through which the poop is moved out from the rectum (the last part of the large bowel) during a bowel movement.

  • Anal cancer is rare when compared to certain other cancers affecting the gut, such as colon cancer and rectal cancer. It accounts for around 0.5 percent of all new cancer cases and around 0.2 percent of all deaths due to cancer.
  • Anal cancer generally affects people aged 60 years and older. This cancer is rare in those younger than 35 years.
  • The risk of anal cancer is higher in white women and black men as compared to the rest of the population.
  • Anal cancer may cause no symptoms during the initial stages. When symptoms do occur, they could be signs of benign (noncancerous) conditions, such as anal warts or hemorrhoids (painful, swollen veins in the anus and rectum that may bleed).
  • The earliest symptom of anal cancer is generally bleeding through the anus.
  • Other symptoms may include anal itching, abnormal anal discharge, or a lump felt in the anal area.

How do you get anal cancer?

The exact cause of anal cancer is not known. Anal cancer results when the cells in the anus start multiplying uncontrollably because of some sudden error in the genes of the affected cells (mutation). Certain conditions may increase the risk of having anal cancer. The infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is most associated with anal cancer. The major risk factors for anal cancer include:

  • HPV infection (a viral infection causing warts)
  • Low immunity (as seen in conditions, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or organ transplant recipients)
  • A personal history of cancer of the vagina, vulva, or cervix
  • Anal sex (being the receiving partner)
  • Cigarette smoking or other forms of tobacco use
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Older age
  • Long-term anal inflammation as seen in chronic anal infection or anal fistula (an abnormal track connecting the anus with the skin or any other part)


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How is anal cancer treated?

The treatment of anal cancer depends on the stage of the disease. Anal cancer can be cured in most patients, especially when cancer is diagnosed early and treatment began in time. Early diagnosis and treatment are important to halt the rising number of deaths due to anal cancer. If experiencing any symptoms of anal cancer, seek urgent medical attention. When ignored, anal cancer can advance to cause serious complications. The treatment of anal cancer largely depends on the type of anal cancer and the extent to which it has spread (determined by the staging of anal cancer). Treatment includes several options, generally used in combination, such as:

Most anal cancers can be treated by a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiation). Newer therapy options, such as the use of radiosensitizers, are being used in clinical trials. Enroll in any of these trials to see if the new treatment options work.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/8/2022
American Cancer Society. Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging.

National Cancer Institute. Cancer Stat Facts: Anal Cancer. National Institutes of Health.