Signs and Symptoms of Anal Cancer

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Changes to your anal area or bowel habits can be scary or frustrating, and cause worry about anal cancer. Knowing the signs and symptoms of anal cancer can help you be aware of your body and let you know when to contact your health care provider. This article will go into the symptoms of anal cancer and complications of the disease.

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What Is Anal Cancer?

Anal cancer is the uncontrolled and abnormal growth of cells lining the anus. The anus is the opening of the rectum. It allows waste to pass from the large intestine and outside the body.

The anus is often confused with the rectum, which is the last several inches of the lower intestine. The rectum ultimately ends at the anus, where fecal material exits the body.

Anal cancer is a rare but serious condition. There was an estimated 8,590 new cases of anal cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2020.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that the five-year survival rate for individuals with anal cancer was 68.7% between 2010 and 2016.

Frequent Symptoms

Anal cancer does not always cause symptoms. Approximately 20% of people diagnosed with anal cancer experience no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they can be fairly general and mimic other non-cancerous conditions.

Anal cancer symptoms may include:

  • A lump near the anus
  • Anal bleeding or bleeding during bowel movements
  • Anal discharge
  • Pain in or around the anus or a feeling of fullness
  • Itchy sensation around or inside the anus
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the anus or groin area

A lump or bump near the anus could be a symptom of anal cancer but can be caused by other, much less serious diseases, like hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, or an anal wart.

See your healthcare provider if you experience any of these signs or symptoms. They can do an exam to determine any underlying cause for your symptoms.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms, please see your healthcare provider. It's common for some people to delay going to the healthcare provider because they feel embarrassed by their symptoms or are fearful of being examined in such an intimate part of their body. Please don't let these emotions prevent you from getting medical attention.

During your examination, your healthcare provider will perform a physical examination. This includes a visual inspection of your anus and a digital rectal exam, in which the healthcare provider inserts a gloved finger into your anus to evaluate for any masses or abnormalities.

Your healthcare provider will also ask you questions about your medical history and risk factors. The good news is that if you do have anal cancer, treatment is often very effective, especially when diagnosed early.

Complications

Cancer and its treatment can sometimes lead to complications, even after treatment is over. This is why post-treatment care is also important. Complications of anal cancer can include:

  • Side effects of radiation (including diarrhea, fatigue, and low blood counts)
  • Effects of chemotherapy
  • Lowered libido
  • Bowel dysfunction
  • Proctitis
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Surgery-related fistulas

If you are having any side effects or complications, call your treatment team and let them know. Taking care of these issues as early as possible can help relieve your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Summary

Anal cancer doesn't always cause symptoms, and when it does, they can be so general they may not cause worry. Being aware of the symptoms like lumps, pain, or a change in bowel habits can help you notice any potential issues earlier. If you do notice anything different about your bowel habits or anal area, call your doctor.

A Word From VeryWell

Although anal cancer is rare, it is serious and warrants comprehensive treatment. Cancer can cause uncertainty, but it is treatable. Talk with your treatment team about any questions you may have and what you can expect.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the early symptoms of anal cancer?

    Some early symptoms of anal cancer can include anal bleeding, narrowing of the stool, anal discharge, persistent anal itching, and a change in bowel habits. Being aware of any changes to your anal area can help you notice when something isn't right.

  • Does anal cancer spread quickly?

    No, it is a slow-growing cancer. Most anal cancers do not spread.

  • What's the difference between rectal and anal cancer?

    The rectum and anus are two different body structures. The rectum starts at the end of the large intestine and ends at the anus. Cancer that starts in two different structures are two separate cancers.

  • How can you tell the difference between anal cancer and hemorrhoids?

    The symptoms of both hemorrhoids and anal cancer can be very similar. If you have symptoms, see your healthcare provider. They can do an exam and determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed
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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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