Anal Cancer

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can anal cancer be prevented?

Since the cause of many cases of anal cancer is unknown it is not possible to prevent this disease completely.

The best way to reduce the risk of developing anal cancer is to avoid infection with HPV or HIV. The risk of these infections is higher for those who have sex with multiple partners and those who have unprotected anal sex.

In people infected with HIV, the use of highly active antiretroviral therapy (also called HAART) can lower the risk of anal intraepithelial neoplasia (a kind of anal pre-cancer) and the risk of HPV infection.

Infection with HPV increases the risk of developing anal cancer. Infection with HPV can be present for years without any symptoms; so the absence of visible warts cannot 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 the virus to somebody else.

Condoms ("rubbers") do provide some protection against HPV, but they cannot completely protect against infection. This is because HPV can still be passed from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact with an HPV-infected area of the body that is not covered by a condom - like the skin in the genital or anal area. Still, it is important to use condoms to protect against AIDS and other sexually transmitted illnesses that are passed on through some body fluids.

A vaccine called Gardasil® can help protect against infection with HPV subtypes 16 and 18 (as well as 6 and 11). In studies, this vaccine was found to prevent anal and genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11 and to prevent anal, vulvar, vaginal, and cervical cancers and pre-cancers caused by types 16 and 18.

This vaccine can only be used to prevent HPV infection -- it does not help treat an existing infection. To be most effective, the vaccine should be given before a person becomes sexually active.

Gardasil was originally only approved for use in women to prevent cervical cancer, but it is now also approved to prevent vulvar and vaginal cancers and pre-cancers (in women) and to prevent anal cancers and pre-cancers in both men and women. It is also approved to prevent anal and genital warts in both men and women.

Cervarix®, another HPV vaccine available in the US, can also be used to prevent infection with HPV types 16 and 18. Although it is only approved by the FDA to help prevent cervical cancers and pre-cancers, a recent study has shown that it is also helpful in preventing anal cancers and pre-cancers.

Smoking is a known risk factor for anal cancer. Stopping smoking significantly reduces the risk of developing anal cancer and many other cancers.


Last Medical Review: 01/02/2013
Last Revised: 01/02/2013