Treatment

What treatment you receive for anal cancer depends on the stage of your cancer, your overall health and your own preferences.

Combined chemotherapy and radiation

Doctors usually treat anal cancer with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Combined, these two treatments enhance each other and improve chances for a cure.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs are injected into a vein or taken as pills. The chemicals travel throughout your body, killing rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells. Unfortunately they also damage healthy cells that grow rapidly, including those in your gastrointestinal tract and in your hair follicles. This causes side effects such as nausea, vomiting and hair loss.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you're positioned on a table and a large machine moves around you, directing radiation beams to specific areas of your body to target your cancer.

    Radiation may damage healthy tissue near where the beams are aimed. Side effects may include skin redness and sores in and around your anus, as well as hardening and shrinking of your anal canal.

You typically undergo radiation therapy for anal cancer for five or six weeks. Chemotherapy is typically administered during the first week and the fifth week. Your doctor tailors your treatment schedule based on characteristics of your cancer and your overall health.

Though combining chemotherapy and radiation increases the effectiveness of the two treatments, it also makes side effects more likely. Discuss with your doctor what side effects to expect.

Surgery

Doctors typically use different procedures to remove anal cancer based on the stage of the cancer:

  • Surgery to remove early-stage anal cancers. Very small anal cancers may be removed through surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon removes the tumor and a small amount of healthy tissue that surrounds it.

    Because the tumors are small, early-stage cancers can sometimes be removed without damaging the anal sphincter muscles that surround the anal canal. Anal sphincter muscles control bowel movements, so doctors work to keep the muscles intact.

    Depending on your cancer, your doctor may also recommend chemotherapy and radiation after surgery.

  • Surgery for late-stage anal cancers or anal cancers that haven't responded to other treatments. If your cancer hasn't responded to chemotherapy and radiation, or if your cancer is advanced, your doctor may recommend a more extensive operation called abdominoperineal resection, which is sometimes referred to as an AP resection. During this procedure the surgeon removes the anal canal, rectum and a portion of the colon. The surgeon then attaches the remaining portion of your colon to an opening (stoma) in your abdomen through which waste will leave your body and collect in a colostomy bag.

Supportive (palliative) care

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.

Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine treatments can't cure anal cancer. But some alternative medicine treatments may help you cope with the side effects of cancer treatment. Your doctor can treat many side effects, but sometimes medications aren't enough. Alternative treatments can complement your doctor's treatments and may offer additional comfort.

Options for common side effects include:

  • Anxiety — massage, meditation, hypnosis, music therapy, exercise or relaxation techniques
  • Fatigue — gentle exercise or tai chi
  • Nausea — acupuncture, hypnosis or music therapy
  • Pain — acupuncture, massage, music therapy or hypnosis
  • Sleep problems — yoga or relaxation techniques

While these options are generally safe, talk with your doctor first to be sure that alternative medicine options won't interfere with your cancer treatment.