How is anal cancer treated?
General treatment information
After the cancer is found and staged, your cancer care team will discuss treatment options with you. The choice of treatment you receive depends on many factors. The location, type, and the stage (extent of spread) of the tumor are important. In choosing your treatment plan, you and your cancer care team will also take into account your age, the general state of your health, and your personal preferences.
The 3 main methods of treatment for anal cancer are:
Often the best approach combines 2 or more of these strategies. In the past, surgery was the only way to cure anal cancer, but now most anal cancers are treated with radiation and chemotherapy combined (called chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy). This approach often eliminates the need for surgery.
Based on your treatment options, you might have different types of doctors on your treatment team. These doctors could include:
- A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy
- A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy
- A surgical oncologist (oncologic surgeon): a doctor who uses surgery to treat cancer
- A colorectal surgeon (proctologist): a doctor who uses surgery to treat diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus
You might have many other specialists on your treatment team as well, including physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, nutrition specialists, social workers, and other health professionals. See Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care for more on this.
It’s important to discuss all treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. You may feel that you need to make a decision quickly, but it’s important to give yourself time to absorb the information you have learned. Ask your cancer care team questions. You can find some good questions to ask in the section, “What should you ask your doctor about anal cancer?”
If time permits, it is often a good idea to seek a second opinion. A second opinion can give you more information and help you feel more confident about the treatment plan you choose.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see “Clinical Trials” to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.
Your recovery is the goal of your cancer care team. If the cancer can’t be cured, the goal may be to help you live as well as possible for as long as possible. This may involve treatment to remove or destroy as much of the cancer as possible and to prevent the tumor from growing, spreading, or returning for as long as possible. Sometimes, treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms such as pain or bleeding and improving the person’s quality of life, even if it will not result in a cure.
The next few sections describe the different types of treatment for anal cancer. This is followed by a discussion of the most common treatment options for anal cancer by stage.
Last Medical Review: 04/09/2014
Last Revised: 01/20/2016