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Photo by: Manfred Werner/Tsui - CC by-sa 3.0

Award-winning actress Marcia Cross, best known for her role on the television series “Desperate Housewives,” opened up to “CBS This Morning” about the stigma surrounding anal cancer and its possible link to her husband’s battle with cancer.

In 2009, Cross supported her husband, Tom Mahoney, through his throat cancer treatments until his remission. A year and a half ago, a visit to her gynecologist for a routine exam revealed Cross had been diagnosed with anal cancer. She has since been in remission and is looking to end the taboo surrounding the disease.

"I know there are people who are ashamed. You have cancer! You have to then also feel ashamed? Like you did something bad, you know, because it took up residence in your anus? I mean, come on, really. There's enough on your plate,” said Cross.

Doctors suspect that both Cross’ and her husband’s cancers came from the same type of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease. It wasn’t until after her cancer treatment that she learned the same type of HPV that likely triggered her husband’s throat cancer can also cause anal cancer.

Dr. Julian Sanchez, Gastrointestinal Oncology

Dr. Julian Sanchez, a surgeon in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Clinic, says anal cancer primarily affects postmenopausal women and almost all cases are caused by HPV. 

“HPV is much like many other viruses in the body that never really go away,” said Sanchez. “You get the initial infection when you’re young and then as you age, the virus can resurface. If you have HPV, the body is usually able to keep the virus at bay until it reappears later in life. It can manifest first as a small bump or genital wart, but can come back as a tumor.”

While there are currently no screening guidelines for anal cancer, Sanchez strongly recommends HPV vaccination. “The most important thing is prevention,” he said. “The HPV vaccine can prevent the next generation from developing cervical, penile, oropharyngeal and anal cancers.” Cross says she plans to get her twin daughters, Savannah and Eden, 12, their first HPV vaccine in a few weeks.

The American Cancer Society estimates 8,300 people will be diagnosed with anal cancer in 2019. Although the disease is rare, there are symptoms you should be on the lookout for: almost half of the patients with anal cancer will experience rectal bleeding, and one third of patients will have either anal pain or sensation of a rectal mass.