Since the cause of many cases of anal cancer is unknown, it’s not possible to prevent this disease completely. But there are things you can do that might lower your risk of anal cancer.
The best way to reduce the risk of developing anal cancer is to avoid infection with HPV and HIV. The risk of these infections is higher for those who have sex with multiple partners and those who have unprotected anal sex.
Infection with HPV increases the risk of developing anal cancer. HPV infection can be present for years without causing any symptoms, so the absence of visible warts can’t be used to tell if someone has HPV. Even when someone doesn’t have warts (or any other symptom), he (or she) can still be infected with HPV and pass it on to somebody else.
Condoms can provide some protection against HPV (and HIV), but they don’t prevent infection completely.
One study found that when condoms are used correctly they can lower the genital HPV infection rate in women by about 70% – but they must be used every time sex occurs. This study did not look at the effect of condom use on anal HPV infection.
Condoms can’t protect completely because they don’t cover every possible HPV-infected area of the body, such as skin of the genital or anal area. HPV can still be passed from one person to another by contact with an HPV-infected area of the body that is not covered by a condom. Still, condoms provide some protection against HPV. Male condom use also seems to help genital HPV infections clear (go away) faster in both women and men.
Condom use is also important because it can help protect against AIDS and other sexually transmitted illnesses that can be passed on through some body fluids.
Vaccines are available that protect against certain HPV infections. All of them protect against infection with HPV subtypes 16 and 18. Some can also protect against infections with other HPV subtypes, including some types that cause anal and genital warts.
These vaccines can only be used to help prevent HPV infection – they do not help treat an existing infection. To be most effective, the vaccine should be given before a person becomes sexually active.
Some of these vaccines, Gardasil® and Gardasil 9®, are approved to help prevent anal cancers and pre-cancers and anal and genital warts in both men and women. They are also approved to help prevent others cancers, too.
Cervarix®, another HPV vaccine available in the US, also helps protect against infection with certain HPV types and can help prevent cervical cancers and pre-cancers. Although it hasn’t yet been shown to prevent anal cancers and pre-cancers, a recent study has shown that it is also helpful in preventing anal HPV infection.
For more information about HPV and HPV vaccines, see HPV Vaccines.
In people infected with HIV, it’s very important to take medicines (known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART) to help keep the infection under control and prevent it from progressing to AIDS. This also lowers the risk of long-term HPV infection and anal intraepithelial neoplasia (a kind of anal pre-cancer), which might help lower the risk of anal cancer.
Smoking is a known risk factor for anal cancer. Stopping smoking significantly reduces the risk of developing anal cancer and many other cancers.
Last Revised: 01/20/2016