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"What was very shocking to us was that the rate and incidence of anal cancer has increased very fast," said lead researcher Ashish Deshmukh. He's an assistant professor in the department of health services research, management and policy at UTHealth School of Public Health, in Houston.
Some groups are being hit harder than others.
Anal cancer cases and deaths from the disease have more than doubled for people in their 50s and 60s. And anal cancer rates among black men born after the mid-1980s has increased five times, compared with black men born in the mid-1940s, the researchers found.
Conversely, if anal cancer is caught early, the five-year survival is close to 70%, he noted.
However, 50% of Americans who are eligible are not vaccinated, which could lead to a wave of new infections and an increase in anal cancer rates in the coming decades.
Anal cancer is not on most people's radar, even though it caused the death of actress Farrah Fawcett in 2009. The illness has also been diagnosed in former "Desperate Housewives" star Marcia Cross, whose husband also developed throat cancer linked to HPV.
For the study, Deshmukh and his colleagues used cancer registries to collect data on nearly 69,000 cases of anal cancer and more than 12,000 deaths from 2001 to 2016.
The findings were published Nov. 19 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Arun Swaminath is director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He said that "it's clear that the incidence of anal cancers is increasing."
Deshmukh advised that those at high risk for anal cancer, especially gay and bisexual men, should be screened regularly.
Swaminath added that "the silver lining is that given that 90% of anal cancers are due to HPV, that there is a vaccine."
If most Americans were vaccinated, it would likely arrest the vast majority of new cases of anal cancer, he said.
"Given the vaccine has only been available for a decade, it will take time for us to see the curve of new cancer cases bending downward," Swaminath explained.
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