For actress Farrah Fawcett, the summer of 2006 was one of extreme highs and lows. She made a triumphant comeback at the Emmys by reuniting with fellow "Charlie's Angels" stars Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith to honor the late television producer, Aaron Spelling. But on Sept. 29, less than a month after the emotional reunion, Fawcett received devastating news: she had anal cancer. The diagnosis reunited her with on-and-off boyfriend, actor Ryan O'Neal, the father of her 22-year-old son, Redmond. He was Fawcett's constant companion as she went through chemotherapy treatments and radiation in late 2006. She was declared cancer-free in February; but, after a routine checkup this May, the 60-year-old learned the cancer had returned.
Anal cancer is relatively rare: the American Cancer Society estimates that 4,650 cases will be diagnosed this year. But the organization says the number is rising. Fawcett falls into the demographic most affected by the disease: she's in her early 60s and female. (Women are slightly more susceptible to anal cancer than men.)
The cancer develops in the tissues of the anus, either in the anal canal or opening. It can cause bleeding, itching, pain or discharge. The exact cause of anal cancer is not known, but it appears to be linked with the human papilloma virus, or HPV (though only a tiny percentage of people with HPV infections will get the cancer). The disease is usually very curable; it causes fewer than 700 deaths each year and the five-year survival rate for those whose anal cancer is detected early is 80 percent.
There are currently three main treatments for anal cancer: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Fawcett has already used a combination of the three: in October 2006 she had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by a six-week course of chemotherapy and radiation in November and December. After the cancer returned, she reportedly sought alternative therapy in Germany, but she hasn't disclosed details of the treatment.
Some cases are symptomless but can be detected early by an annual rectal exam, which the American Cancer Society suggests for all men over 50. The American Cancer Society recommends that men over 50 have yearly rectal exams (for women, the rectal exam is typically included in a pelvic exam). Doctors hope that the newly developed HPV vaccine will also prevent anal cancer (as well as cervical cancer) by targeting the strands of HPV that may cause the disease.