What is anal cancer?
Anal cancer is a growth occurring within the last 5cm of the bowel – it can occur on the inside or outside of your bottom.
It is more common in certain groups, such as people with impaired immune systems (e.g. HIV+ & transplant recipients), women with a history of an abnormal cervical Pap smear and gay men. However, it only occurs rarely outside these groups
People may have no symptoms for the first few years that the cancer is developing. Common symptoms are bleeding, a lump, or a feeling that the bowel has not been fully emptied after opening. However, many much more common conditions (such as haemorrhoids) can cause the same symptoms, so it is important to get them checked out.
Anal cancer develops in people who have certain strains of wart virus (HPV – human papillomavirus). After many years, the irritation caused by HPV can lead to cancer.
Why is anal cancer so important?
It often does not show up until quite an advanced stage – this can make treatments difficult, and sometimes they are not fully effective.
Rates of anal cancer are increasing in both women and men.
The population around St Vincent’s has anal cancer rates 20 times that of the rest of the country. This probably relates to the communities it serves.
What we can do about it?
It is important that everyone under the age of 26 years is vaccinated against HPV – this has been part of school vaccination programs for many years. The benefits of the vaccine in older people is not known.
Early diagnosis is critical – the sooner a diagnosis is made, the easier it is to treat.
A finger check inside your bottom (Digital Anal Rectal Examination – “DARE”) by your GP or specialist is currently the single most important test to detect anal cancer. This should be performed annually if you are living with HIV.
Screening tests (based on a simple swab of the area) are being trialled in a number of populations. St Vincent’s has several research programs to investigate how these can be rolled out.
If you are worried you may have anal cancer, then speak to your General Practitioner. Don’t be embarrassed – getting it sorted early is very important.
St Vincent’s has a specialized clinic dedicated to diagnosing and managing anal cancer-related conditions. Further information can be found here.