The actress wants to end the stigma around the disease.

By Claire Gillespie
November 20, 2020
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Marcia Cross has shared an update following her treatments for anal cancer—setting an example of the type of frank conversations we should all be having about our health, even the aspects that we might find a little embarrassing.

The Desperate Housewives star was diagnosed with anal cancer in November 2017 after a routine gynecological checkup, followed by two biopsies and a colonoscopy. She later had 28 radiation treatments and two weeks of chemotherapy. But before she started her treatment, she made sure she was armed with the knowledge she needed to prepare herself for what was to come.

"The side effects are so gnarly," Cross told Coping With Cancer for the publication's November/December issue. "I'm really happy with people that were really honest about it, because doctors like to play it down since they don't want you to freak out."

Cross, who has 13-year-old twin daughters Eden and Savannah, said she "read a lot online" and also turned to the Anal Cancer Foundation website. "They were pretty specific about things. So, I was kind of ready for what was to come," she revealed.

Some of the "gnarly" side effects Cross experienced were pain, gastric problems, mouth sores, and skin issues. She said she thought she was doing great after her first chemotherapy treatment, but "out of nowhere," she felt an "excruciating" sting in her lip. "It was from the chemo," she said. "So I did learn after that to be proactive and get ahead of things because I thought, 'I don't need that rinse, or these drugs, or whatever,' and then I found myself in the thick of it, and I had gastric problems, mouth sores, all the terrible things that can happen with chemotherapy… It's certainly not fun."

Cross's cancer was likely related to HPV (human papillomavirus), which she hadn't previously been diagnosed with. She had the same viral strain of HPV that likely caused her husband Tom Mahoney's throat cancer, for which he received treatment in 2009. In June 2019, Cross told CBS This Morning that she was doing everything she could to encourage people to get vaccinated to protect them against HPV. (Kids can start getting the HPV vaccine at age 9.)

HPV causes about 91% of anal cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can also cause cancer of the cervix, genitals, and throat, and can spread between people via sex or simply skin-to-skin contact.

While Cross has been in remission for more than two years, her recovery hasn't been without its challenges. "I'm very lucky, but it does take a while for your body to kind of get back to normal," she told Coping with Cancer. "I say the new normal is that I am more sensitive of what I eat and take better care of myself and my diet."

Destigmatizing anal cancer wasn't part of Cross's plan—"I wasn't interested in becoming the anal cancer spokesperson. I wanted to move on with my career and my life," she said. Yet she read about people who were keeping their diagnosis secret out of shame and embarrassment. She also learned that "doctors were not comfortable talking about it," and women weren't receiving the follow up care they required.

"They weren't told things like your vagina could develop scar tissue, which it does. And you have to do things afterward to take care of yourself. I just saw how, oh my gosh, we are so behind on all of this because it's our anuses!" Cross said.

Today, she has no shame about having anal cancer. "I'm a big fan of the anus… I just have a lot of respect for this tiny, little two inches that makes our lives livable and pleasant," she declared. "I really think to destigmatize it is the way to go. It's just silly… We all have one. It's nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of."

In fact, Cross sees her anal cancer as a gift, "because it does change you." She told the magazine that it "does wake you up to how precious every day is." "I take nothing for granted, nothing," she said. "Just as we are seeing right now [with the COVID-19 pandemic], our entire world just changed on a dime."

The actress, whose most recent TV role was in ABC's Quantico, stressed how important it is to go for those regular gynecological check-ups—and then take your doc's advice. "I felt very lucky because the only reason that [the cancer] was diagnosed is because I had such a thorough, wonderful gynecologist," she said. "I kind of owe her my life."

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