Anal Cancer Deaths Are on the Rise—Here's 3 Warning Signs to Look Out For

Most cases of anal cancer are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV).

An increasing number of people in the US are being diagnosed with—and dying from—anal cancer, according to research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2019.

The incidence of the most common type of anal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma of the anus, rose 2.7% per year between 2001 and 2015, while the number of people who died from anal cancer increased 3.1% during that period. Young black men and elderly women are most affected, say the study authors.

“The rates are increasing very rapidly,” the study’s lead author Ashish Deshmukh, an assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, told Today. “It’s concerning. Traditionally, our perception of anal cancer has been that it’s one of the rarest forms of cancer and because of that, it’s neglected.”

Most cases of anal cancer are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV); according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s believed that 91% of people diagnosed with anal cancer each year develop it as a result of a previous HPV infection.

“People must recognize that certain cancers, including anal cancer, are essentially STDs,” Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, tells Health. “The HPV infection transforms normal squamous cells that line the anus into cancerous cells in some individuals.”

Another recent study, also led by Deshmukh and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that about 75% of American adults don’t actually know HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, causes the disease.

Currently, the CDC recommends that everyone age 26 and younger get the HPV vaccine, starting around ages 11 to 12, long before they are likely to be exposed to the virus, which is transmitted through sexual contact.

“We often do not have a method to prevent cancer, but getting the HPV vaccine could significantly decrease the likelihood of developing several types of cancer, including anal cancer,” Stacey A. Cohen, MD, GI medical oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, tells Health.

The most effective way of reducing your risk of anal cancer is through prevention, adds Dr. Jacoub. “Avoid high-risk sexual behavior, including limiting your number of sexual partners,” he says. People who have many sexual partners and have anal sex often are at a higher risk for HPV and anal cancer, Health previously reported.

According to Dr. Cohen, the most common symptoms of anal cancer are rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, anal pain and/or anal pressure. “Sometimes people will think bleeding is from hemorrhoids or some other source,” she says. “It’s important to have a visual evaluation with your primary care doctor.”

The good news is that if anal cancer is detected early, survival rates are good. “Localized anal cancer has a very good prognosis, especially when it is associated with HPV,” says Dr. Cohen. “Treatment usually includes chemotherapy and radiation, with surgery saved for cases where chemoradiation is not effective.”

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