Surgery for Anal Cancer

In most cases, surgery is not the first treatment used for anal cancer. For people who do need surgery, the type of operation depends on the type and location of the tumor.

Local resection

A local resection is an operation that removes only the tumor, plus a small margin (edge) of the normal tissue around the tumor. It's most often used to treat cancers of the anal margin if the tumor is small and has not spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

In most cases, local resection saves the sphincter muscles that keep stool from coming out until they relax during a bowel movement. This allows a person to move their bowels normally after the surgery.

Abdominoperineal resection

An abdominoperineal resection (or APR) is a major operation. The surgeon makes one incision (cut) in the abdomen (belly), and another around the anus to remove the anus and the rectum. The surgeon may also take out some of the nearby groin lymph nodes, though this (called a lymph node dissection) can also be done later.

The anus (and the anal sphincter) is removed, so a new opening needs to be made for stool leave the body. To do this, the end of the colon is attached to a small hole (called a stoma) made on the abdomen. A bag to collect stool sticks to the body over the opening. This is called a colostomy.

In the past, APR was a common treatment for anal cancer, but doctors have found that it can almost always be avoided by using radiation therapy and chemotherapy instead. Today, APR is used only if other treatments don’t work or if the cancer comes back after treatment.

Possible risks and side effects of surgery

Potential side effects of surgery depend on many things, including the extent of the operation and the person’s health before surgery. Most people will have at least some pain after the operation, but it usually can be controlled with medicines. Other problems can include reactions to anesthesia, damage to nearby organs, bleeding, blood clots in the legs, and infection.

APR tends to cause more side effects, many of which are long-lasting changes. For instance, after an APR, you might develop scar tissue (called adhesions) in your belly that can cause organs or tissues to stick together. This might cause pain or problems with food moving through the intestines, which can lead to digestive problems. 

People also need a permanent colostomy after an APR. This can take some time to get used to and may mean some lifestyle changes.

For men, an APR may cause erection problems, trouble having an orgasm, or your pleasure at orgasm may become less intense. An APR can also damage the nerves that control ejaculation, leading to “dry” orgasms (orgasms without semen).

APR usually does not cause a loss of sexual function for women, but abdominal adhesions (scar tissue) may sometimes cause pain during sex.

More information on dealing with the sexual impact of cancer and its treatment can be found at Sex and the Man With Cancer and Sex and the Woman With Cancer.

More information about Surgery

For more general information about  surgery as a treatment for cancer, see Cancer Surgery.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: November 13, 2017

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