While anal cancer is relatively rare, new cases are on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, cancer of the anus occurs almost twice as often in women as men. In 2022 so far, there have been about 9,440 new cases (3,150 in men and 6,290 in women). Anal cancer typically doesn’t appear in people younger than 35, occurring most often between 55 and 65.
The American Cancer Society states that cases of anal cancer are highest in white women and black men. However, the risk of being diagnosed with this type of cancer is about 1 in 500, making it extremely rare. While deaths from anal cancer are rising, treatments are still quite effective, especially if the cancer is detected early.
What is Anal Cancer?
Anal cancer begins in the cells lining the anal canal, but it can spread to other organs and lymph nodes. Doctors categorize these tumors into two groups depending on where they start: cancers of the anal canal or cancers of the perianal skin. The perianal skin is the skin surrounding the anus outside the body.
Nearly 90% of anal cancer cases in the US are squamous cell cancer. These tumors begin in the squamous (flat) cells lining the majority of the anal canal and perianal skin. Most anal cancers start in cells in the mucosa or the inner lining of the anal canal. Glands in this region produce mucus to help stool move quickly out of the body.
Rare types of anal cancers include adenocarcinomas, basal cell carcinomas, and melanoma. Adenocarcinomas usually begin in cells lining the upper portion of the anus near the rectum and occur in the glands underneath the anal mucosa. Additionally, they can appear in sweat glands in the perianal skin.
Basal cell carcinomas are extremely rare and usually occur in areas of skin frequently exposed to the sun, such as the face and hands. If this cancer appears in the anus, doctors will usually surgically remove it.
Another type of skin cancer called melanoma can rarely appear in the anal canal. If doctors discover them early, they can remove the tumor with surgery. Early detection and treatment increase long-term survival chances. However, since melanoma isn’t easy to spot, most go unnoticed until later.
Now that you know about the various types of anal cancer, we’ll go over the signs and symptoms to watch out for.
Eight Signs of Anal Cancer to Never Ignore
According to the American Cancer Society, anal cancer doesn’t always present with symptoms. Sometimes, it may go undetected for months until your next doctor visit. However, bleeding typically occurs in the early stages of anal cancer. Most people attribute the bleeding to hemorrhoids (painful, enlarged veins in the anus and rectum that can bleed), but this isn’t always the case.
Symptoms and signs of anal cancer can include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Itching in or near the rectum
- A lump or mass near the anus
- Pressure or pain in the anus or rectum
- Narrowing of stool or other abnormalities in bowel movements
- Unusual discharge from the anus, such as mucus or blood
- Loss of bowel control
- Swollen lymph nodes in the anal canal or groin
In women, other symptoms can include pain in the lower back, vaginal dryness, or increased urgency to use the bathroom.
These symptoms usually point to a benign (non-cancerous) condition, such as anal warts, anal fissures, or hemorrhoids. However, if you experience any of these symptoms, it’s essential to inform your doctor just in case.
Risk Factors for Developing These Tumors
Several risk factors, including lifestyle habits and family history, can increase anal cancer risk. However, having these risk factors doesn’t mean developing cancer. Some people with the following risk factors will never get these tumors, while others may develop them with no apparent risk factors.
The most significant risk factors for this disease include: