Anal Cancer

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Treating Anal Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for anal cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs to treat cancer. Some drugs can be swallowed in pill form, while others need to be injected into a vein or muscle. The drugs enter the bloodstream to reach and destroy the cancer cells throughout the body. This makes chemo a systemic or "whole body" treatment.

Some drugs kill the cancer cells directly. Chemo can also make it easier for radiation to kill the cells. In anal cancer, chemo combined with radiation therapy can often cure the cancer without the need for surgery. Often, chemo is given alone at first, followed by chemo with radiation (chemoradiation). Chemo may also be given after chemoradiation, to help shrink the tumor further. Chemotherapy often uses 2 or more drugs because one drug can boost the effect of the other. The main combination used to treat anal cancer is 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and mitomycin. The combination of 5-FU and cisplatin is also used fairly often.

Chemotherapy drugs can reach just about any place inside the body. Doctors sometimes give chemo after surgery has removed the cancer. The chemo is meant to destroy any cancer cells that were left behind because they were too small to see. This is called adjuvant therapy. It is meant to lower the chance of the cancer coming back. Chemo may also be used to treat anal cancer that has spread to distant sites, such as the liver or lungs.

Chemotherapy drugs can also damage some normal cells, which can cause side effects. This can depend on the specific drugs, the amount taken, and the length of treatment. Common temporary side effects might include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth sores
  • Low blood counts

Because chemotherapy can damage the blood-producing cells of the bone marrow, patients may have low blood cell counts. This can result in:

  • An increased chance of infection (due to a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (due to a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Fatigue or shortness of breath (due to low red blood cell counts)

If you get chemo, it is important to tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects as soon as you notice them. Your cancer care team can help you deal with them. For example, anti-nausea drugs can help control nausea and vomiting. Sometimes changing the treatment dosage or how you take your medicines can reduce side effects. Most side effects will stop when your course of treatment ends.

For more information about chemotherapy, see Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

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