In 2023, an estimated 9,760 people will receive a diagnosis of anal cancer in the United States. The average age to receive a diagnosis is 60, and women are more likely than men to develop anal cancer.

Anal cancer is a relatively rare cancer in comparison to rectal and colon cancer, but cases are rising faster each year. In many cases, these cases may preventable.

This article looks at incidence rates of anal cancer along with potential causes, risk factors, and prevention strategies.

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points in this article is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.” Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t include data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Anal cancer is more rare than other cancers of your lower digestive system such as colon or rectal cancer. Your anus itself is made up of the lower portion of your large intestine just below your rectum but before your anal opening. It’s a 1.5-inch-long muscular canal through which stools leave your body.

Approximately 9,760 people are expected to receive a diagnosis of anal cancer in the United States in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society. Although anal cancer is more prevalent in women — an estimated 6,580 women annually receive a diagnosis compared with 3,180 men — the outlook for men is worse.

The National Cancer Institute’s SEER program found that approximately 1,670 people died from anal cancer in 2022.

While these numbers on their own aren’t that large in comparison with other types of cancer, rates of new diagnoses and deaths have each increased by about 3% each year.

Anal cancer relative survival rates by stage5-year relative survival rate
Stage 1 (localized, with the cancer in your anal tissue alone)82%
Stage 2 (regional, meaning the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes)66%
Stage 3 (distant, meaning the cancer has spread to your other more distant organs)35%
All stages combined69%

Key statistics about anal cancer

  • Anal cancer is most common in people older than 35 years of age.
  • The average age to receive a diagnosis of anal cancer is around 60 years old.
  • White women are more likely than women of other races to develop anal cancer.
  • Black men are more likely than men of other races to develop anal cancer.
  • The lifetime risk of receiving a diagnosis of anal cancer is about 1 in 500.
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The exact cause of anal cancer is unclear. But in the majority of people, it’s linked to an infection of human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Many of these types are spread through skin-to-skin contact.

The type of HPV that has been linked to anal cancer specifically is believed to be mostly spread through oral, genital, or rectal sexual contact.

Certain types of HPV also cause genital warts, while others can cause cancers of the:

People who have weakened immune systems and people who smoke cigarettes also have higher rates of anal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Who’s at risk of anal cancer?

Anyone who has unprotected sexual contact is at risk of a host of sexually transmitted diseases. Anal cancer is no exception. Some of the biggest risk factors for the development of anal cancer include:

  • having a previous HPV infection
  • having a weak immune system due to a medical condition or medication
  • having many sexual partners (creating an increased risk of an infection of HIV and HPV)
  • having received a previous diagnosis of vulvar, vaginal, or cervical cancer
  • having anal sex (specifically if you’re the receiving partner)
  • smoking cigarettes
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The symptoms of anal cancer include:

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor or healthcare professional for a physical examination and diagnosis. In addition to the number of people receiving a diagnosis of anal cancer increasing, experts note that more people are receiving the diagnoses when the cancer is in later, more advanced — and therefore more dangerous — stages.

What’s the difference between anal cancer and colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the name given to cancers that develop in your colon or rectum — both sections of your large intestine. Anal cancer, on the other hand, develops in the lowermost part of your digestive tract where stool is pushed from your body.

While your anus may seem like it should be a part of this system, your anus is considered separate from colorectal cancer. One reason for this is the fact that your anus is made up of both your large intestine and external tissue. The other reason is related to the primary cause of anal cancer: a virus.

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As with many cancers, prevention of anal cancer focuses on reducing your risk in any way you can. This can include strategies such as avoiding smoking or becoming vaccinated against HPV.

The use of barrier methods of birth control may help to reduce your risk of developing anal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, condoms and other barrier methods provide some protection against HPV and HIV. But it’s unclear whether condoms or other barrier methods can completely protect against anal cancer.

If you have known risk factors that you’re unable or incapable of changing, talk with a doctor about regular screening. Screening for anal cancer can take the form of a digital rectal exam, where a doctor manually examines your anal canal and rectum through your anus or vagina.

Cytology testing can also be performed. This is similar to a vaginal Pap smear. During this test, a doctor swabs your anal canal and examines the collected cells under a microscope.

If additional testing is needed, a doctor may need to perform an anoscopy, where your anal canal is examined with a viewing tool inserted through your anal opening.

Rates of anal cancer are on the rise, but preventive measures such as the HPV vaccine offer new hope.

Many of the risk factors for anal cancer are avoidable, but if you’re at high risk, talk with a doctor about screening. Catching anal cancer early can significantly improve your outlook.