Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Tests For Anal Cancer

Submitted on March 27, 2012

There are several different types of cancer that can affect the human body, anal cancer being one of them. Anal cancer can be described as a rather uncommon form of cancer, which occurs when there is a tumor in the anal canal. This anal canal is like the short tube situated at the end of the rectum. Stool that is eliminated from the body, leaves through the anal canal.

Anal cancer is usually characterized by signs and symptoms like pain in the anal area as well as rectal bleeding. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that they are suffering from this medical condition, because the symptoms are quite similar to those experienced during hemorrhoids. As a result, most people do not consult their doctors immediately, due to which the condition goes undiagnosed for a long time.

Though anyone can develop anal cancer, it is more common in those who are over the age of 50. The risks of this condition are also higher in those men and women who have had multiple sexual partners during their lives, or those who engage in anal sex frequently. Other unhealthy lifestyle practices like cigarette smoking or taking certain drugs could also trigger off the formation of tumors in the anal area.

It is possible to treat anal cancer, if the condition is detected in the initial stages. People suffering from anal cancer may need to try out a combination of treatment options, like surgery, medication, radiation and chemotherapy. In some instances, primary anal tumors can spread to other parts of the body. Anal cancer can metastasize to the organs such as the lungs and the liver. Though it is rare for malignant anal tumors to spread, the ones that do are quite difficult to treat. Anal cancer is as serious as any other form of cancer and therefore, it should be treated by a doctor, without any delay.

Tests Recommended

Diagnosing anal cancer may be a bit of a challenge, mainly because its symptoms are not specific to the condition. After noticing the various symptoms of anal cancer, you should at the very outset consult your family doctor or a general practitioner. Your doctor may first carry out a physical exam and check your medical history. After ruling out the possibility of hemorrhoids, you may be advised to consult a gastroenterologist (digestive disease specialist) or an oncologist (a cancer specialist). As soon as it suspected that a patient may be suffering from anal cancer, he or she may be advised to undergo certain tests. Given below are some of the most commonly recommended anal cancer tests:

  • Digital rectal examination (DRE): Health care providers check the rectum and the anal canal for any abnormalities, by inserting a lubricated finger into the area. This exam on its own does not diagnose cancer, but it can help the doctor identify which other tests should be conducted.
  • Anoscopy: With the help of a short, lighted device known as the anoscope, the anal canal is inspected for any unusual growths.
  • Ultrasounds: An endo-anal or endorectal ultrasound uses high-energy sound waves, to create images of the anal canal and the rectum. To carry out this test, your doctor will insert a probe into the area that needs to be investigated.
  • Biopsy: When it comes to cancer testing, this is the most effective one. Your doctor will obtain a tissue sample of the affected area, which is then sent to the lab for an analysis. By studying the tissue sample under a microscope, doctors can tell if the cells are cancerous or not.

Some of the other imaging tests that may be recommended for cancer include Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Computerized Tomography (CT) scans, Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and pelvic X rays.

Cancer tests not only confirm if a person is suffering from the condition or not, but can also help the doctor establish the stage in which the cancer is.


You could develop anal cancer when a genetic mutation transforms the normal and healthy cells in your body, into abnormal cells. These abnormal cells grow, multiply and divide at a rapid pace. Over a period of time, these mutated cells take up the space and nutrients from the healthy cells too, destroying them in the process. Gradually, the unhealthy cells amass together to form a tumor, which is cancerous. If not treated, the cancer cells spread to the nearby tissues, causing the infection to grow.

One of the main anal cancer causes is a sexually transmitted infection triggered by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Studies indicate that the presence of HPV can be detected in a majority of the anal cancer cases.

There are several different factors that could cause a person to develop this condition. Given below are some of the other possible causes of anal cancer:

  • Advancing age: As you age, your immune systems may get weaker, because of which your body may not be able to fight off the cancer cells. This is why elderly people are more susceptible towards anal cancer, as compared to the others.
  • Smoking: Several cases of cancer occur because of cigarette smoking. People who smoke regularly or even those who are often exposed to secondhand smoke are at a high risk of anal cancer.
  • Use of certain drugs: Immunosuppressive drugs have an adverse effect on your immune system, which in turn, increases your risks of developing anal cancer. Corticosteroids prescribed for immune system disorders could also cause this problem.
  • Sexual activity: Men and women who engage in anal sex on a regular basis could sustain injuries near the anal cavity, which in turn could lead to cancerous tumors. This is also the case with those individuals who have several sexual partners during their lifetimes.
  • Heredity: Like most other types of cancer, anal cancer could also be a result of genetic factors, as the condition usually runs in families

It is important to realize that doctors may not be able to determine the exact causes of anal cancer in most cases.


In case you develop anal cancer, there are several different signs and symptoms that you are likely to experience. Unfortunately, most of the common anal cancer symptoms are not specific, which is why you may not suspect that you are suffering from a serious problem like a tumor or cancer. Given below are some of the most commonly seen symptoms of anal cancer:

  • Bleeding mainly from the anus or the rectum, especially during a bowel movement.
  • Constant pain in the anal area.
  • Anal discharge.
  • Presence of an abnormal mass or growth, in the form of any lumps and bumps in the anal canal.
  • Severe itchiness in the anus.
  • Significant changes in bowel movements, like constipation, diarrhea or thinning of stools.

After noticing these signs and symptoms, in case you happened to assume that you are suffering from fissures or hemorrhoids (piles), rest assured that you are not alone. This is a very common mistake made by most people. People, who happen to notice spots or streaks of blood on the tissue paper or in the toilet bowl after passing stool, automatically believe that they have developed piles, due to constipation. To alleviate the symptoms several people start including a higher amount of fiber in their diets. In case of piles, these symptoms get better after incorporating healthy dietary and lifestyle changes. However, in case the signs and symptoms are caused by anal cancer, they will probably not get better, in spite of following a healthier diet or lifestyle.

It is important for you to detect the condition in the early stages, so that it can be treated as soon as possible. Therefore, in case you happen to experience rectal bleeding, itchiness, pain or any other discomfort in the area, it is best for you to get it checked by a doctor, without any delay.


Anal cancer treatment depends entirely on the severity of the condition, as well as the patient's overall health. In most cases, doctors recommend a combination of treatment options, which could include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In case there is a tumor present, you may first need to undergo surgery, to remove it. However, not all tumors may be operated on and in some cases, surgery could cause damage to the anal sphincter. In such cases, doctors try to treat the cancer using radiation therapy and chemotherapy first.


Unfortunately, there are many severe side effects that can be experienced because of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. This could be why people ask their doctors if they could opt for complementary and alternative therapies instead. However, alternative forms of treatment cannot cure cancer, though they can help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Some of the complementary and alternative therapies recommended for dealing with the side effects of cancer treatment include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Relaxation techniques