As much as I think celebrities should be afforded their privacy—like the rest of us—when they're battling life-threatening diseases, I sometimes blog about their conditions because I see them as teaching moments. Farrah Fawcett is in the news today with reports that she's been hospitalized for complications of anal cancer. She was first diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. Speculation was running wild that she was "close to dying," but the latest reports say she's suffering from a blood clot that resulted from an "alternative" cancer treatment she had in Germany to fight the cancer's recurrence.
Anal cancer is one of those cancers no one likes to talk about because it's, well, anal cancer. But we really should discuss it as much as, say, cervical cancer. Both are predominately caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus. In fact, a 2004 study of 6,000 anal cancer patients (the majority of whom were women) found that 73 percent of the patients tested positive for the strain HPV-16, one of the strains that the Gardasil vaccine protects against.
What's worrisome is that unlike cervical cancer, which has dropped dramatically since the advent of the Pap smear, anal cancer is on the rise. Incidence rates over the past 30 years have jumped by 78 percent in women and 160 percent in men, probably because more people now have more sexual partners and more people have anal sex (both among heterosexuals and gay men), says Lisa Johnson, a cancer epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who led the 2004 study.
Having unprotected sex, either anal or vaginally, raises your risk of becoming infected with HPV. Smoking is also associated with a higher risk of anal cancer, according to information I gleaned from the National Cancer Institute website, possibly because it inhibits immune function.
[Here are 12 other reasons to quit smoking.]
While anal cancer is far less common than breast cancer—1 in 640 women will be diagnosed during their lifetime, compared with 1 in 8 with breast cancer—only about half of anal cancers are detected in their earliest stage, when they're most treatable. Partly for this reason, only about 67 percent of people diagnosed with anal cancer survive five or more years.
There are, though, several ways women can protect themselves, says Johnson. Younger women can get the Gardasil vaccine, which is approved for those up to age 27. By blocking the transmission of two common cancer-causing HPV strains, she says, the vaccine presumably protects against anal cancers, throat cancers, and oral cancers that are associated with HPV infections.
And don't skip those yearly gynecologist visits. As tough as it may seem, be upfront with your doctor if you've ever had unprotected anal sex and find out if there's any extra screening you should have. Anal Pap smears are available, and though they're mostly used for gay men, women can have them too. Be sure you have an HPV test along with your regular Pap smear. If you test positive for a cancer-causing strain and have had anal sex, talk to your doctor about methods for detecting anal abnormalities before they turn cancerous.
I hope Farrah Fawcett will recover fully from this latest complication. I'm eager to see the documentary she's working on about her treatment experience. The fact that she has documented and shared her fight with cancer suggests that she, too, recognizes the importance of the teaching moment.