The Cancer No One Talks About

It used to be no one dared speak its name--it was maybe, in an act of boldness, referred to the Big C. And to mention breast cancer--well, that necessitated saying the word "breast." The chatty Alice Roosevelt Longworth was silent about her radical mastectomy in 1956. But in the sixties the public loosened up and learned to say Breast and Cancer together, so when Longworth was diagnosed with cancer in the remaining breast in 1970, she went public. I am American's only topless octogenarian, she said.

This is a long way around to get to the topic of anal cancer. I didn't know you could get anal cancer until today, when I read about Farrah Fawcett's imminent decline. The first article I read said she had had cancer, was in remission for two years, then had metastasis in her liver. Did she have breast cancer? I wondered. I roamed around the internet and found that it was something else entirely. Now every article I'm finding on the internet mentions the anal cancer. So I'm starting to doubt myself about the first story. Anyway, she is fragile, sleeping most of the day and fed by IVs. To her credit, she became a spokeswoman for early detection for colorectal cancer.

Some people have the symptoms (pain and bleeding) of the cancer and assume they're caused by hemorrhoids. The cancer is linked to HPV, the human papilloma virus that is better known for bringing us cervical cancer. The biggest risk factor for acquiring HPV is anal intercourse with a person infected with the virus, a media doctor tells us, and it doesn't help if you smoke, have HIV or a compromised immune system. The way to diagnose it is by a rectal exam. Colonoscopies don't always reveal the cancer. A good article about all this is here.

When I was in Pennsylvania I met with a journal-writing group in a Gilda's Club. One woman there said she went to her doctor for a routine physical and he told her: You're 59, you've never had a colonoscopy; go get one.

And so she did. And found out she had colon cancer and had to have surgery.

Fawcett's cancer initially was referred to as "below the colon," according to the Denver Post. The unsavory word "anal" wasn't used. ... Fawcett's publicist, Michael Pingel, said Fawcett would not have revealed what type of cancer she had. She was "outed." An upcoming NBC special documentary, Farrah's Story, begins not when she finds out she has cancer, but when the doctor tells her that it's in her liver.

The cancer is so rare and unloved that it doesn't even have a ribbon. (You can check this site yourself, which sells all sorts of cause ribbons and wrist bands, such as periwinkle blue ribbon pins that stand for a number of conditions, including acid reflux and anorexia nervosa.) But look on the bright side: rates are going up, so we may soon be able to buy ribbons and bands and hats and other tchotchkes for anal cancer soon.