Anal Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: June 28, 2018

When your body makes stool, it sits in the rectum. The anus is an organ that helps you control moving stool from the rectum to the outside of the body. Anal cancer is caused by anal cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. 

Anal cancer that has spread from the anus to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Risks include:

  • Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) or HIV
  • Smoking

Signs of Anal Cancer

Signs of anal cancer:

  • Bleeding when passing stool.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness in the anus. 
  • Some people may be itchy, have a discharge, change from normal bathroom habits, and be sore to the touch. 

Diagnosis of Anal Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have anal cancer, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health history. Your provider will do a digital rectal exam and also look at the anus with a scope. These tests are important but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have cancer. A biopsy

  • Looks at a piece of the anus for cancer cells
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, how normal it is [grade], and if it has spread
  • The biopsy may be done using a needle, small pair of scissors or clamps to remove a small piece of tissue 

A pathology report sums up these results and is sent to your healthcare provider, typically 5-10 days after the biopsy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.

Staging Anal Cancer

To guide treatment, anal cancer is "staged." This stage is based on

  • Size and location of the tumor
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of anal cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used: 

  • Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of medication to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemoradiotherapy is the use of radiation and chemotherapy at the same time. 
  • Surgery can be used in some cases to remove the tumor. 

This article is a basic guide to anal cancer. You can learn more about your type of anal cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All About Anal Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Anal Cancer

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