Anal cancer symptoms can be elusive, and may not appear in the earliest stages of the condition. There have been cases in which anal cancer caused no outward signs at all. However, in cases where there are symptoms, bleeding from the anus and/or bloody stools may be the first signs to appear. Often, people will assume that rectal bleeding is associated with hemorrhoids—a fairly common cause of the symptom. However, physicians recommend that any bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stools be checked, just in case it is being caused by something more serious.
What are the warning signs of anal cancer?
Other potential anal cancer signs are also connected with other, benign conditions. However, if a person is experiencing one or more of these issues, a medical professional should be consulted to ensure that the symptoms are not associated with malignancy (cancer). Some of these warning signs include:
- Itching in or around the anus
- A lump or mass at the anal opening
- Narrowing of the stool or other changes in bowel movements
- A feeling of pain or pressure in the anal area
- Abnormal discharge from the anus
How to detect anal cancer at an early stage
Considering that anal cancer often doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms at first, and that the symptoms that do appear are commonly attributed to another condition, you may assume that there’s no way to catch it while it’s still in its early stages. That’s actually not true. Everyone should be on the lookout for the signs of anal cancer and should report any troublesome symptoms to their doctor for follow-up care. Those who are at particularly high risk for developing this malignancy should also look into screenings.
Hemorrhoids vs. anal cancer
As was mentioned above, many people initially assume that hemorrhoids are the cause of rectal bleeding. You may be wondering, though, what a hemorrhoid is and how to distinguish between the two conditions.
What is a hemorrhoid?
A hemorrhoid is a swollen vein in or around the anal cavity. A swollen vein within the rectum is known as an internal hemorrhoid, while a swollen vein in the skin surrounding the anus is referred to as an external hemorrhoid. Internal hemorrhoids rarely cause noticeable symptoms, although straining during bowel movements can sometimes lead to painless bleeding. External hemorrhoids, however, often cause the following symptoms in the area around the anus:
How to tell if you have a hemorrhoid or anal cancer
The only way to truly distinguish symptoms caused by a hemorrhoid from those caused by anal cancer is to consult with a trained medical practitioner who can provide you with an accurate diagnosis. So, if you’re experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of anal cancer—even if you suspect they might be caused by a hemorrhoid—you should make an appointment with a medical professional to determine the actual cause.
With that being said, awaiting a potential cancer diagnosis can be incredibly nerve-wracking. So to provide you with some peace of mind in the meantime, here are some circumstances that would likely point to the presence of hemorrhoids rather than anal cancer:
- You have one or more risk factors for hemorrhoids. These risk factors include being obese, being pregnant, eating a diet low in fiber, regularly lifting heavy objects, engaging in anal intercourse, experiencing chronic constipation or diarrhea, straining during bowel movements and sitting on the toilet for an extended period of time.
- You can see what appears to be a hemorrhoid. If you hold up a mirror to your anus, you may be able to see a hard, red, possibly mucus-covered, lump. You might also see a group of soft lumps appearing in a bunch.
- Your symptoms fluctuate. Hemorrhoids often cause symptoms that come and go. But be sure to watch out for worsening or additional symptoms, which could be a sign of anal cancer or another serious condition.
- At-home remedies ease your symptoms. Hemorrhoid symptoms are often relieved—sometimes in as little as a week—by increasing fiber intake, taking pain medication, applying hemorrhoid cream or other topical treatments or soaking in a bathtub or a sitz bath.
Anal cancer treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center
At Moffitt Cancer Center, we take anal cancer signs very seriously. The multispecialty team within our Gastrointestinal Oncology Program will discuss any symptoms you may be experiencing. If the symptoms point toward the possibility of anal cancer, we can begin the diagnostic process immediately, all within our state-of-the-art cancer center. For those who are diagnosed with a complicated case of anal cancer, our collaborative tumor board will meet to evaluate the patient’s condition and treatment plan. We can help manage every step of the patient’s progress, and we can coordinate treatment with the patient’s primary physician to ensure that proper follow-up care continues once the cancer is in remission.
If you have questions about anal cancer signs, or you want to consult with our anal cancer team about other related concerns, contact Moffitt Cancer Center by calling 1-888-663-3488 or by using our new patient registration form. We’re providing each new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within just one day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital across the United States.