Farah Fawcett and Anal Cancer: Could HPV, Anal Sex or Smoking Increase Your Risk?

9 years ago

The answer seems to be yes.

If it is possible for anything good to come out of the loss of Farrah Fawcett, it would probably be that it is bringing cancer awareness back to the forefront of our minds. She even made a documentary (Farrah's Story) of her experiences for that very reason.

But, I think there are a few things that need clarification about the type of cancer that Farrah Fawcett was suffering from. You have probably heard that it was anal cancer, but you may not realize that anal cancer is not the same as colon or rectal cancer.

In researching for this post, I came across several people making statements that confused anal cancer with colon and rectal cancer. These are distinctly different types of cancers, each with their own symptoms, treatments and causes.

For one, the incidence of anal cancer is tiny in comparison to colorectal cancer.

How Common is Anal Cancer?

Anal cancer is fairly uncommon. It accounts for about 1-2% of gastrointestinal cancers. About 4,000 new cases of anal cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S.A., about half in women. Approximately 600 people will die of the disease each year. This may be compared to 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer with 50,000 deaths per year.

When it comes to every type of cancer, catching it early is key to successful treatment. This is no different with anal cancer. Early detection is key, so never allow embarrassment to cause you to ignore symptoms.


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Signs and Symptoms of Anal Cancer...

Some cases of anal cancer cause no symptoms at all. But bleeding occurs in more than half of patients and is usually the first sign of the disease. Often the bleeding is minor. At first, most people assume that hemorrhoids are the cause of their bleeding. Itching can also be a symptom. This is more often a sign of AIN, which should also be treated. Important symptoms of anal cancer include:

  • rectal bleeding
  • rectal itching
  • pain in the anal area
  • change in the diameter of stool
  • abnormal discharge from the anus
  • swollen lymph nodes in the anal or groin areas

There are a number of benign conditions, such as hemorrhoids, fissures, or anal warts that can cause similar symptoms. But if any of the signs or symptoms of anal cancer are present, discuss them with your doctor without delay. Remember, the sooner you receive a correct diagnosis, the sooner you can start treatment, and the more effective your treatment will be.

But what causes anal cancer?

Well, that's the somewhat controversial side of this disease. It seems a large percentage (up to 85%) of cases are associated with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and that anal sex may increase your risk for developing anal cancer.

From Lauren at EmpowerHer - Shedding Light on Anal Cancer...

In all the discussion about Farrah Fawcett’s cancer, most people shied away from mentioning its origin and those who did neglected to delve further into its causes. It has become taboo to talk about anal cancer because — in most cases — it alludes to anal sex and/or STDs around the anus.

However, with incidences of anal cancer steadily on the rise, it is absolutely necessary to educate people on the causes so that they can protect themselves from some of the aggravating factors that lead to the illness.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer...

HPV is but one part of the anal-cancer puzzle. The American Cancer Society points out that there are many studies that have found an increased rate of anal cancer in smokers, and the effect of smoking is especially important in people with other risk factors for anal cancer. Any condition that leads to a weakened immune system may trigger, in the presence of HPV, the development of anal cancer. This includes HIV/AIDS or any medical condition that requires the use of powerful immune-suppressing drugs.

Who is at risk for anal cancer?

Anal cancer is commonly associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus causes warts in and around the anus and on the cervix in women. It is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer in women.

A risk factor is something that increases a person's chance of getting a disease. In addition to exposure to the human papilloma virus, additional risk factors include:

  • Age - Most people with anal cancer are over 50 years old.
  • Anal sex - Persons who participate in anal sex are at an increased risk.
  • Smoking - Harmful chemicals from smoking increase the risk of most cancers including anal cancer.
  • Immunosuppression - People with weakened immune systems, such as transplant patients who must take drugs to suppress their immune systems and patients with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection, are at a somewhat higher risk.
  • Chronic local inflammation - People with long-standing anal fistulas or open wounds are at a slightly higher risk.
  • Pelvic radiation - People who have had pelvic radiation therapy for rectal, prostate, bladder or cervical cancer are at an increased risk.

I really don't find the risk factors controversial, and I don't think there needs to be a stigma associated with anal cancer. Risk factors are just that, and what they should not be are accusations. For example...Smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, but there are many people dying of lung cancer that have never smoked a cigarette in their life.

This is from The American Cancer Society Survivors Network - Farah Fawcett's Anal Cancer...

I was told when I was diagnosed with stage 3 anal squamous cell cancer that the causes COULD be from my years of smoking (diagnosed at age 39) or from an HPV. They also ask me if I had anal intercourse. Never had anal intercourse. I've been with my husband for 20 years and neither of us have strayed outside our marriage.

From The Stitchery...

Farrah Fawcett lost her life to the rare cancer, anal squamous cell cancer that I had. The reports about her death list the causes of this cancer. I don’t know if Farrah had HPV, (Human Papillomavirus Virus) or had anal sex or multiple partners. We are not allowed that information. But those are the main “causes” being touted.

I didn’t have those. I did have major stomach pain, constipation/diarrhea swings, a swelling stomach, no energy for a long time, susceptibility to illness. And a tumor growing and spreading, for some period of years. I had a colonoscopy 4 years prior that didn’t reveal this tumor but now it was there.

I have so much respect for the courage that Farrah showed through her long ordeal with this disease. But, there was one thing that bothered me a little about Farrah's Story. I was under the impression that her treatments in Germany were done when all other treatments were exhausted in our country. But it seems that she made a choice to ignore her doctors recommendation for surgery, because she didn't want to end up with a colostomy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging her for this decision. I'm just wondering if the outcome might have been different, had she allowed the doctors to do the surgery before going for additional treatments in Germany?

This is from Cathi at Frugal Is A Four Letter Word - Farrah's Story...

The questions I had after watching Farrah's Story were:

  • Why did they never do the colostomy?
  • Why did they wait until the end to do anything that would cause her hair to fall out?
  • What if she had not been rich--or Farrah--who would have flown her to Germany a million times and pay for treatment.

In these ways I felt that all playing fields are not equal (as we know).

What do you think about Farrah's battle with anal cancer? Has it helped bring more awareness to this type of cancer? Has it helped decrease the stigma associated with it? Has it added to the controversy over alternative medicine? Has it made you more aware of your own personal risks for this type of cancer? Let me know in comments.

Also See:

From M at Medicine.net - Farrah Fawcett's German Cancer Care...

From Bonnie at EmpowerHer - Anal Cancer and HPV

From Behind Blogndie Park - Actress Farrah Fawcett Dies at 62

From Cora at Hidden Riches From Secret Places - Farrah's Story

Are You There Cancer? It's Me, Jenny

Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
at Catherine-Morgan.com and Women4Hope

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