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Marcia Cross and Farrah Fawcett

Photo by: Manfred Werner/Tsui - CC by-sa 3.0, Wikimedia Commons and Justo Ruiz, CC by 2.0 flickr

Actress Marcia Cross says she is happy to be healthy again after undergoing treatment for anal cancer. The Desperate Housewives star isn’t the first leading lady diagnosed with the disease. In 2006, Farrah Fawcett lost her battle with anal cancer at age 62.

Although anal cancer is rare—it accounts for less than three percent of all digestive system cancers—it is more common in women than men. More than 5,500 women will be diagnosed with the disease in the United States this year.

What are the symptoms?
Almost half of the patients with anal cancer will experience rectal bleeding. One third of patients will have either anal pain or sensation of a rectal mass.

How is anal cancer treated?
The majority of patients are treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. If the cancer does not completely resolve with this treatment, surgical removal of the rectum and anus may be needed. A small group of patients diagnosed very early may be treated with surgical removal of the tumor.

Can I be screened for anal cancer?
Currently there is no widely accepted screening for anal cancer. Routine colonoscopies may incidentally find an anal cancer, although it’s more likely that symptoms will have prompted the colonoscopy.

Who is at risk for anal cancer?
There are many factors that can increase your risk for anal cancer, including HIV infection, previous blood cancers, autoimmune disorders and smoking. Many squamous cell anal cancers are also linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The same virus can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers and women with a history of cervical cancer are at greater risk for anal cancer.

“HPV vaccination has been shown to decrease pre-cancerous anal lesions and will likely translate to preventing a proportion of anal cancers,” said Dr. Seth Felder, a colorectal surgeon in Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program.

Felder also recommends quitting smoking to reduce your risk of anal cancer.