As actress Marcia Cross talks anal cancer struggle, here's how to spot the symptoms of the condition

Marcia Cross has opened up about her anal cancer struggle in a bid to tackle the stigma surrounding the condition [Photo: Getty]

Words Elizabeth Di Filippo and Marie-Claire Dorking. 

Former ‘Desperate Housewives’ star Marcia Cross has been opening up about her struggle with anal cancer in a bid to end the stigma surrounding the condition.

The 57-year-old actress was first diagnosed almost a year and a half ago, but after months of treatment is finally ready to share her story.

“I want to help put a dent in the stigma around anal cancer,” she told People.  “I’ve read a lot of cancer-survivor stories, and many people, women especially were too embarrassed to say what kind of cancer they had. There is a lot of shame about it. I want that to stop.”

In 2017, the former ‘Melrose Place’ actress discovered she had anal cancer during a digital rectal exam with her gynaecologist.

Having been sent immediately to a colon and rectal surgeon and following two biopsies, she began six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy soon after.

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The mum-of-two is now coming up to being a year and a half in remission, and has been told by doctors there’s a low chance of recurrence.

“Every time I go to the bathroom, I think, ‘That’s awesome! Thank you, body,’” Cross said.

Now the actress is opening up about her experience in a bid to make people aware of the symptoms -which can include anal bleeding, pain, itching and lumps – so they can get checked out as soon as possible.

What is anal cancer?

According to the NHS, anal cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the anus (end of the bowel).

About 1,300 people are diagnosed with cancer of the anus each year in the UK.

What are the symptoms of anal cancer?

Though some people will experience no symptoms at all, according to Dr Richard Sarsam, consultant gastroenterologist at BMI The Princess Margaret Hospital, symptoms can be similar to more common and less serious conditions affecting the anus – the end of the bowel – such as piles (haemorrhoids) and anal fissures (small tears or sores).

Dr Sarsam recommends looking out for bleeding, itching and pain around the anus, small lumps around it, a discharge of mucus and loss of bowel control.

Other symptoms of anal cancer can include:

  • bleeding from the bottom (rectal bleeding)
  • itching and pain around the anus
  • small lumps around the anus
  • a discharge of mucus from the anus
  • loss of bowel control (bowel incontinence)

“Some people with anal cancer do not experience any symptoms at all, but if you are experiencing any of the above it’s good to get them checked by a doctor,” Dr Sarsam adds.

“It’s probably not due to anal cancer, but a doctor will be able to advise after they’ve carried out or arranged for some additional tests.”

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Treatments

The most effective treatment for anal cancer is chemoradiation, which is a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The NHS says a few hospitals now offer tablet chemotherapy for anal cancer.

Surgery is a less common treatment option for anal cancer. It’s usually only considered if the tumour is small and can be easily removed, or if chemoradiation hasn’t worked.

Risk factors of anal cancer

Though the exact cause of anal cancer is unknown, the NHS says a number of factors can increase your risk of developing the condition including:

  • infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) – a common and usually harmless group of viruses spread through sexual contact, which can affect the moist membranes lining your body
  • having anal sex or lots of sexual partners – possibly because this increases your risk of developing HPV
  • having a history of cervical, vaginal or vulval cancer
  • smoking
  • having a weakened immune system – for example, if you have HIV

Age can also have an impact in the risk factor of anal cancer, with half of all cases diagnosed in people aged 65 or over. And according to the National Cancer Institute, most anal cancer diagnosis occur in people over the age of 50.

The condition is also more common in women than men.

Prevention

According to Cancer Research UK using condoms every time you have sex can lower your chances of getting HPV. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom so they don’t reduce the risk completely.

Some studies have also shown that smoking increases the risk of anal cancer, so quitting could help reduce your anal cancer risk.