Can anal cancer be prevented?
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.
A vaccine called Gardasil® can help protect against infection with HPV subtypes 16 and 18 (as well as 6 and 11). This vaccine has been shown to help prevent anal and genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11 and to help prevent some anal, vulvar, vaginal, and cervical cancers and pre-cancers caused by types 16 and 18.
This vaccine can only be used to help 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 help prevent cervical cancer, but it is now also approved to help protect against vulvar and vaginal cancers and pre-cancers (in women) and to help prevent anal cancers and pre-cancers in both men and women. It is also approved to help prevent anal and genital warts in both men and women.
Cervarix®, another HPV vaccine available in the US, can also be used to help protect against 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 HPV infection.
For more information about HPV and HPV vaccines, see Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Cancer, HPV Testing, and HPV Vaccines: FAQ.
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 Medical Review: 04/09/2014
Last Revised: 05/02/2014