Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross is known for her long, flowing red hair, but she revealed in a series of recent Instagram posts that she lost it after undergoing treatment for anal cancer.
“So grateful and happy to be alive but sad that my hair fell out and is about 1 inch long now and looks cra cra. Anyone else have #hairloss due to #cancer? Talk to me. I feel you,” she captioned a photo on Instagram of herself with short hair, pouting for the camera.
Cross, 56, followed up with another Instagram post clarifying that she is “post cancer” now. “All good now,” she said. “I am healthy, happy, and more present and grateful than ever.” In a later post, Cross finally revealed that she had anal cancer, adding, “I know, right?!”
Anal cancer is rare, but it is more common among people over 35.
This type of cancer, which affects the anal canal (the short tube at the end of your rectum through which poop leaves your body), is less common than cancers that affect the colon or rectum, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). About 8,500 new cases of anal cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in 2018, and about 1,160 people are expected to die of the disease this year, according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute. The cancer is rare in people under 35, the ACS says, and most people are diagnosed in their early 60s.
There are many factors that can increase your risk for anal cancer (including your age, smoking, as well as a previous diagnosis of cervical, vulvar, or vaginal cancer). But the Mayo Clinic says that it’s the human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common STI, that’s at the root of most cases of anal cancer. In fact, as SELF wrote previously, the rate of anal cancers associated with HPV increased an average of 2.9 percent in women every year since 1999, while the rates other forms of HPV-related cancer have been declining.
Anal cancer can cause symptoms that can easily be confused with those of less severe conditions.
There aren’t currently anal cancer screening guidelines for the general public. It can be caught during rectal exams in people who might receive these examinations regularly for other health reasons (e.g. they have HIV). And while it might also be caught during a routine colonoscopy, anal cancer is usually diagnosed when someone notices symptoms—but those symptoms may not be obvious.
“It can be difficult to differentiate anal cancers from other perianal type-diseases because the symptoms are quite broad,” Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF.
Symptoms include bleeding from the anus or rectum, pain in the anal area, a mass or growth in the anal canal, and anal itching, the Mayo Clinic says. Unfortunately, hemorrhoids (which are swollen veins in your rectum and anus) and anal fissures (which are tears in the anal mucosa) can cause similar symptoms, Dr. Bilchik points out.
“People will often present with these non-specific findings and say, ‘For months, I’ve had this hemorrhoid that wouldn’t go away,’” Van Morris, M.D., an assistant professor of gastrointestinal medical oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells SELF.
But, in general, anal cancer is more likely to cause bleeding that increases with time, while hemorrhoids or anal fissures will have bleeding that comes and goes with harder stools, Dr. Morris notes. People with anal cancer also may feel like they have some sort of mass in their rectal area, he says. Those who have more advanced anal cancer might notice swollen lymph nodes in their groin.
Treatment for anal cancer usually involves a combination of radiation and chemotherapy, which can indeed result in hair loss.
Anal cancer is generally treated with a combination of chemotherapy, which has shown to be most effective for treating this form of cancer, the Mayo Clinic says. Patients usually undergo radiation therapy for five to six weeks and chemotherapy during the first and fifth week, according to the Mayo Clinic. Surgery may also be recommended in some cases.
Most people do well with treatment, especially if their cancer is caught early and hasn’t spread to other organs, Dr. Bilchik says. “There are high rates of cure with this disease, and surgery is only done if there is a local recurrence,” Sarah Hoffe, M.D., section head of GI Radiation Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, tells SELF.
Although this cancer is rare, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms, especially if you’ve ever had an abnormal Pap result.
“Women who have had prior abnormal Pap smears, even without diagnosis of cervical cancer, need to be more [tuned in] to these symptoms,” Dr. Morris says. And, if you start having anal bleeding, itching, and pain, make sure your doctor knows about your history of having an abnormal Pap—even if it was years ago, he says.
Above all, remember that you know best when something feels off with your body. If you’re not sure what’s going on, check in with your doctor to find out.