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Diagnosing anal cancer

Diagnosing anal cancer

Anal cancer occurs when damaged cells reproduce uncontrollably, forming a tumor in the anal area, Healthline explained. A rare disease, MD Anderson Cancer Center reported that the yearly number of anal cancer diagnoses, nationwide, stands at roughly 5,000. While there are a number of risk factors for the disease, research has indicated that anal cancer is strongly linked with the human papilloma virus, a ubiquitous infection typically passed on sexually.

Given that HPV is linked with anal cancer, it is important that health care facilities take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of cross-contamination with HPV in the clinical setting, namely by using single-use medical tools. This article will take a closer look at anal cancer, how it is diagnosed and the importance of utilizing single-use anoscopes while screening for the disease.

What is anal cancer?
As detailed by MD Anderson Cancer Center, the anus is the part of the body situated below the rectum that facilitates the evacuation of feces. The source noted that the rectum is relatively short in length, averaging around an inch or so. Anal cancer is a term that denotes any kind of cancerous growth in this region. There are several forms of anal cancer, with the source explaining that the most common form of anal cancer is a type of disease that forms in the squamous cells. Basel cell and melanoma skin cancers can also occur, as can adenocarcinomas in the anal glands, although these types are less common. 

Signs and symptoms
As with many other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, anal cancer leads to symptoms that can be observed while going to the bathroom, Healthline detailed. For example, bleeding while passing stools or bleeding from the anus in general can indicate the presence of anal cancer. The disease may also lead to itching or soreness in the anal area, as well as discharge. Anal cancer oftentimes also causes the sensation of pressure in the anal area, and/or pain, and there may be a lump that can be seen and felt. Alterations in normal bowel habits are also common. As stressed, these symptoms are by no means exclusive to anal cancer – they can be indicative of other serious conditions such as colon cancer, as well as benign problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Patients are advised to consult their physician if they experience any of the aforementioned symptoms. 

Major risk factors
Researchers widely agree that HPV plays a major role in the development of anal cancer. This understanding is supported by evidence that indicates that HPV is present in most patients who develop the condition, the Mayo Clinic stated. In addition to having HPV, other major risk factors for anal cancer include:

  • Immune system suppressing drugs and illnesses, such as HIV.
  • Having a family history of cancer. 
  • Being over the age of 50.
  • Having multiple sexual partners.
  • Smoking cigarettes.
  • Having anal sex. 

It is important to keep in mind that, despite the risk factors outlined above, anal cancer remains a rather rare condition.

There are several procedures used to diagnose anal cancer.There are several procedures used to diagnose anal cancer.

How is anal cancer diagnosed?
As explained by the American Cancer Society, anal cancer diagnosis typically involves several steps and procedures. These usually occur after a patient makes an appointment with his or her physician, due to experiencing one or more of the symptoms outlined earlier. 

Common approaches to anal cancer diagnosis, as explained by the source, include:

1. Digital rectum exam
This is the first step that physicians use to determine whether there are abnormalities in the anal area that warrant concern. The rectum exam is a simple and quick procedure that is usually performed in a physician's office- the doctor will look for any problems in a patient's anal cavity with their finger, which is covered with a glove and carefully inserted using lubricant.

2. Anoscopy
Anoscopes are tools designed to be inserted into the rectum with the help of lubricant. The anoscopes have a light source, allowing physicians to be able to see clearly. This approach is used to examine the anus and rectum to look for abnormalities that could indicate the presence of cancer. 

3. Endocscopy
This approach is routinely used in cases where anal cancer is suspected. The procedure is more involved, and features the insertion of a thin device into the anal area and gastrointestinal tract. The endoscope, as it is called, has a camera on the end so that doctors can inspect the area. Endoscopes can also be used to scrape samples of tissue that look suspicious. The samples can then be sent for biopsies to determine whether cancer is present in the patient.

If a biopsy indicates that cancer is present, a number of other procedures may be necessary to determine how far a patient's disease has spread, if at all, and to determine the next steps in terms of treatment. Common procedures after diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society, include CT scans, imaging tests, MRI scans, PET scans, x-rays and ultrasounds. 

The importance of single-use medical tools
As explained, having HPV increases an individual's risk of developing anal cancer, as well as other cancers in the genital region – notably cervical cancer in women, the American Cancer Society explained. There are many strands of HPV, although some strands pose a much higher cancer risk than others.

The strand most associated with a higher risk of both cervical and anal cancer is HPV-16. This strand can be passed on to patients in a medical setting through the use of medical tools that are repurposed. Known as reusable medical tools, a notable number of health care facilities still use medical instruments, such as vaginal speculums and anoscopes, that can be disinfected and then used again on patients. This is concerning, due to the fact that certain studies have shown the disinfection process to be ineffective. A study from researchers at Brigham Young University, for example, found that HPV-16 – the strand most associated with anal and cervical cancer – is resistant to conventional products used in the disinfection process in health care facilities, highlighting the possibility that the virus can be spread from medical instruments to patients.

The most effective solution, therefore, is for medical facilities to use single-use tools. Designed to be utilized once on a patient and then safely discarded, single-use tools eliminate the risk of cross-contamination with HPV and other viruses, such as HIV. 

Consider OBP Medical
OBP Medical specializes in a range of easy to use, single-use devices, including the ANOSPEC Single-Use Lighted Anoscope. Fitted with a safe LED light source that doesn't produce dangerous heat, this anospec eliminates the risk of cross-contamination and presents a more efficient option for medical facilities looking to improve the speed and quality of their care. To learn more and to request a free sample, click here.