‘Anal cancer incidence becoming more prevalent in women’

The global burden of anal cancer is more prevalent in women, and South Africa is reflective of the global disease burden distribution. However, incidences of anal cancer are higher in men who sleep with other men. 

This is according to the MSD, an American multinational pharmaceutical company.

Despite the decline in reported cases between 2021 and 2023 due to the impact of Covid-19,  MSD South Africa’s associate director of communications Leko Nkabinde told Sunday World that the annual number of new cases of anal cancer is 194 in men and 271 in women.

Lifestyle, gender trends 

Majority of the anal cancer is related to the Human papillomavirus (HPV). A very common STI that has a vaccine that can prevent it. 

“According to the HPV information centre, the number has remained relatively constant. The crude incidence rate is 0.66 for men and 0.90 for women per 100,000,” said Nkabinde.

Nkabinde revealed that women contract the disease through self-inoculation and anal sexual contact, and intercourse.

“One of the risks of anal cancer in women is a current or previous HPV-related cervical, vaginal, or valvular disease or cancer. Women with HPV-related cervical, vulva, or vaginal lesions or cancer have an increased risk of anal cancer,” she added.

“Incidence is particularly high among populations of men who have sex with men (MSM). Also women with a history of cervical or vulva cancer, or immunosuppressed populations. These include those who have HIV and patients with a history of organ transplantation,” Nkabinda shared.

Common symptoms

Nkabinde said patients with anal cancer may present general cancer symptoms, which are seen in most cancers.

“These include unintentional weight loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, etc. Specific anal cancer symptoms are dependent on the stage, size, and location of the tumour.

“They may include constipation, difficulty defecating, diarrhoea, pain during defecation, and fresh blood on the stool. Depending on the stages of the cancer the patient presents with.”

Early detection saves lives

If detected in the early stages, cancer can be cured. “It is much harder to cure cancer if it has affected other structures of the body (what is called metastasis). The treatment of anal cancer is preferably radio-chemotherapy to preserve the anal anatomy.”

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). And anal cancer is one of the few vaccine-preventable cancers in the world.

Vaccination against HPV STIs available

“You can prevent HPV-related anal cancer through HPV vaccination against the HPV types that cause anal cancer,” said Nkabinde.

Girls, women, boys, and men can be vaccinated against HPV-related diseases, including cancer.

“People must speak to their pharmacists or doctors about HPV vaccination.”

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