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Cancer Medicine :: Treatment for Anal Cancer

Anal Cancer

Treatment Options

This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best proven treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. 

Treatment overview

In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient's overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team.

For anal cancer, there are three main types of treatment: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Descriptions of each treatment option are listed below. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient's preferences and overall health. 

Surgery

Surgery is the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation. The type of surgery for anal cancer depends on the stage of the cancer. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. Surgery for anal cancer may also be performed by a colorectal surgeon, who specializes in surgery on the colon or rectum.

Anal carcinoma in situ or early-stage cancer can often be treated by removing the abnormal cells and a small area of the surrounding normal tissue (called a margin). Afterward, patients should receive regular follow-up screening to watch for and remove any new abnormal cells.

Previously, most patients with later stages of anal cancer were treated surgically before effective chemotherapy and radiation therapy were developed for anal cancer. However, studies have shown similar cure rates between surgical treatment and the combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Now, most patients have a biopsy (which may require some level of surgery; see Diagnosis) followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy without further surgery. Many patients can avoid major surgery with this type of combined treatment.

If a patient cannot have chemotherapy or radiation therapy, surgery may be recommended. Surgery may also be recommended if the cancer remains after initial treatment or returns after treatment has been completed. A persistent or recurring tumor may be treated with an abdominoperineal resection, which is the surgical removal of the anus, rectum, and part of the colon. This procedure results in a colostomy (an opening on the abdominal wall to allow feces to be collected in a bag). During this procedure, lymph nodes may also be removed (called a lymph node dissection).

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. Radiation therapy for anal cancer is often combined with chemotherapy.

Patients with both anal cancer and HIV may be treated with lower doses of radiation therapy, depending on the degree to which the patient's immune system is compromised by the HIV.

Side effects of radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, temporary anal irritation, loose bowel movements, and discomfort when having a bowel movement. Scar tissue may form from the damage to anal tissue, which may interfere with bowel function. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells' ability to grow and divide. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.

Chemotherapy for anal cancer usually consists of a combination of drugs. The main chemotherapy drugs given for anal cancer are fluorouracil (5-FU, Adrucil) and mitomycin C (Mitozytrex, Mutamycin) or fluorouracil and cisplatin (Platinol). Chemotherapy is particularly effective for treating anal cancer when given in combination with radiation therapy. The combined treatment allows the use of lower radiation doses and improves the likelihood of completely destroying the tumor.

Patients with both anal cancer and HIV may receive lower doses of chemotherapy, depending on the degree to which the patient's immune system is compromised by the HIV.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.

The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications.

Palliative/supportive care

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person's symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care can help a person at any stage of illness. People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and supportive care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem, so it is addressed as quickly as possible. 

Recurrent anal cancer

A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.

A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many survivors feeling worried or anxious that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it's important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return. 

If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).

When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the therapies described above (such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) but may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer.

People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. 

Metastatic anal cancer

If cancer has spread to another location in the body, it is called metastatic cancer.

Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about seeking a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials.

Your health care team may recommend a treatment plan that includes a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Supportive care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.

For many patients, a diagnosis of metastatic cancer can be very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.

If treatment fails

Recovery from cancer is not always possible. If treatment is not successful, the disease may be called advanced or terminal cancer.

This diagnosis is stressful, and this is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.

Palliative care given toward the end of a person's life is called hospice care. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. 

Coping with Side Effects

Fear of treatment side effects is common after a diagnosis of cancer, but it may help to know that preventing and controlling side effects is a major focus of your health care team. This is called palliative or supportive care, and it is an important part of the overall treatment plan, regardless of the stage of disease.

Common side effects from each treatment option for anal cancer are described in detail within the Treatment section. Learn more about the most common side effects of cancer and different treatments, along with ways to prevent or control them. Side effects depend on a variety of factors, including the cancer's stage, the length and dosage of treatment(s), and your overall health. Damage to the anus, bowel, or bladder can occur from the use of radiation therapy, resulting in diarrhea, problems with urination, or problems having bowel movements. Surgery or combined use of radiation therapy and chemotherapy can result in impotence in men (the inability to get or maintain an erection).

Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each type of treatment you will be receiving. Ask which side effects are most likely to happen, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them. And, ask about the level of caregiving you may need during treatment and recovery, as family members and friends often play an important role in the care of a person with anal cancer. 

In addition to physical side effects, there may be psychosocial (emotional and social) effects as well. Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team who can help with coping strategies. 

During and after treatment, be sure to tell the health care team about the side effects you experience, even if you feel they are not serious. Sometimes, side effects can last beyond the treatment period, called a long-term side effect. A side effect that occurs months or years after treatment is called a late effect. Treatment of both types of effects is an important part of survivorship care.

After Treatment

After treatment for anal cancer ends, talk with your doctor about developing a follow-up care plan. This plan may include regular physical examinations and/or medical tests to monitor your recovery for the coming months and years.

Regular examinations are important following treatment of anal cancer to detect any local recurrence of the cancer or spread to other parts of the body. The examinations usually are scheduled for every few months for the first two or three years following treatment, and then at less frequent intervals. In addition to physical examination, other procedures (such as proctoscopy), imaging studies (such as CT scanning), and blood tests may be done, depending on the treatment given.

People recovering from anal cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, eating a balanced diet, and having recommended cancer screening tests. For anal cancer survivors who smoke, quitting smoking is strongly encouraged. Talk with your doctor to develop a plan that is best for your needs. Moderate physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your doctor can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. 

Latest Research

Doctors are working to learn more about anal cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

Radiosensitizers. Drugs that make tumor cells more susceptible to radiation therapy are being explored as a way to enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

HPV vaccines. Because anal cancer is likely caused by HPV, an HPV vaccine (see Risk Factors and Prevention) could potentially prevent many cases of anal cancer from occurring.

Anal cytology. Similar to a Pap test, anal cytology looks for abnormal cells in the anal lining. This test may help find anal cancer at the earliest, most treatable stages.

Supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current anal cancer treatments, in order to improve patients' comfort and quality of life.

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