Understanding Anal Cancer – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Understanding Anal Cancer – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP
Anal Cancer | cancerGO

What is Anal Cancer?

When the cells of the anus become abnormal and begin to grow uncontrollably, anal cancer develops. The anus is the part of the intestine that opens to the outside of the body, allowing fecal material to pass through. Factors that can increase someone’s risk of developing anal cancer include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • HIV infection
  • Smoking
  • Taking medication to suppress the immune system
  • Anal sex
  • Anal warts


The symptoms of anal cancer can vary for each person, but the following is a list of some of the most common symptoms associated with anal cancer.

  • Bleeding when having a bowel movement
  • Itching around the anal area
  • Loss of control of bowel movements
  • Enlarged lymph nodes noted in the groin
  • Discharge from the anus
  • Change in the size of the stool
  • Difficulty passing stool


The diagnosis of anal cancer is often made after seeking advice from the healthcare team about symptoms that may have been experienced. If your healthcare provider has concerns about the possibility of anal cancer, there can be a variety of tests that can be done.

A physical exam is done to evaluate the area of concern and inspect for any abnormal findings. An exam may occur in which the healthcare provider places a finger in the anus and rectum to feel for any lumps or masses and inspect for bleeding. Lymph nodes in the groin may be felt to see if they are enlarged.

Imaging studies may also be needed. These imaging tests may include the following:

  • X-ray
  • Computed tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)
  • Ultrasound

A person with suspected anal cancer will likely be referred to a gastroenterologist for further testing. These tests, such as anoscopy or endoscopy, are done using a camera to look into the anus and rectum to inspect the area visually.

If suspicious tissue is found, a biopsy will be taken to be evaluated under the microscope to look for the presence of cancer cells. If cancer is confirmed, these cancerous cells will be tested to see if HPV is present.

Once anal cancer is diagnosed, it must be staged to determine how far the cancer has spread or if it is just in the anus.


Treatments for anal cancer often consist of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy and can be used alone or in combination with each other. The final treatment plan is developed based on the stage of the cancer.

Anal cancer is a serious disease that can be life-threatening. However, it is also very treatable, especially when caught early. Be sure to see a doctor if you are experiencing any anal cancer symptoms so that you can get the treatment you need as soon as possible.

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP
Julie is an oncology certified Oncology Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of medical oncology experience. In addition to her clinical work, she is an accomplished healthcare writer providing oncology content for various publications. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member for a Master's nursing program and a chair for Doctoral nursing students.

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