If you’ve seen a warning about HPV (human papillomavirus) and cancer, you likely saw an ad in a women’s magazine or in a commercial that encouraged mothers to get their daughters vaccinated. Most ads tie HPV to cervical cancer, but the truth is that HPV is connected to many cancer types for men and women, including anal cancer.
“Relative to many cancers, treatment of anal cancer carries high cure rates,” said Tomislav Dragovich, MD, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona. “If detected early, chemotherapy and radiation can be very effective. But the high cure rate (more than 80%) is dependent on early detection.” Managing your risks and keeping regular screening exams are key practices in protecting yourself from anal cancer.
HPV and anal cancer
There are many risk factors associated with anal cancer. They include smoking, immune suppression, unsafe sexual practices and HIV infection. Lately, HPV is emerging as one of the most frequent, thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers. Statistics like these show the importance of early detection and prevention. While there is no cure for HPV, the HPV vaccine is extremely effective in preventing it.
Protecting against HPV infections
About 80% of men and women will get HPV at some point during their lives. But most will never know they had it. HPV commonly manifests as genital warts that may spread to the anal area, but not in every case. If you suspect you may have genital warts, you should meet with a physician. In addition to the vaccine, Dragovich mentioned lifestyle modifications such as safe sex practices and quitting smoking as effective in limiting your risk of anal cancer.
Not all HPV infections are the same
While HPV infection is a strong risk factor for anal cancer, the vast majority of people with HPV infections don’t develop anal cancer. Dragovich explained that there are more than 150 types of HPV. Of all the different types, HPV-16 is the one commonly associated with anal cancer.
As mentioned before, a weakened immune system will increase the likelihood of developing anal cancer as well. This is seen most often in patients with HIV and in patients who have recently undergone an organ transplant and are on immune suppressants.
“Any bleeding, irritation and appearance of anal warts warrants additional attention,” said Dr. Dragovich. “Regular gynecological exams, and colonoscopies in those above the age of 45, will help identify those at risk and detect some early lesions.”
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