Being diagnosed with anal cancer

Your GP will feel your tummy (abdomen) and may examine your back passage. This may be uncomfortable but helps if you relax. If your GP thinks you may have anal cancer, they will refer you to hospital to have more tests.

At the hospital, you will usually see a bowel specialist. They will examine you again and ask about your general health and medical history.

The main test used to diagnose anal cancer is a proctoscopy. A doctor or nurse puts a thin tube into the back passage. They can see the area closely using a tiny light and camera on the end of the tube. They may also take a small sample of cells (biopsy). A proctoscopy can be uncomfortable and may be painful. You can talk to your doctor about using an anaesthetic if it is too painful.

You should get the results of your tests within two weeks. Waiting for them can be a stressful time. Talking about your worries with someone can help.

How anal cancer is diagnosed

You will usually start by seeing your GP, who will feel your tummy (abdomen) and may examine your back passage (a rectal examination). To do this, your GP places a gloved finger into your back passage to feel for any lumps or swellings. This may be uncomfortable, but it will be less uncomfortable if you are able to relax. Let your GP know if you find the rectal examination painful, as it’s important that they tell the hospital specialist.

You may have a blood test to check for anaemia (a low number of red blood cells). You may also have blood tests to check whether your liver and kidneys are working normally.

If your GP is unsure what the problem is, or thinks that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a hospital specialist. You will usually be referred to either a surgeon or a specialist in bowel conditions (a gastroenterologist).

If a cancer is suspected, you should be seen at the hospital within two weeks.


At the hospital

At the hospital, the specialist will ask about your general health and any previous medical problems. They will examine you and repeat the rectal examination. Women may also have an internal examination of their vagina, as the vaginal wall is very close to the anal canal.

The specialist will need to do some tests before they can diagnose anal cancer.


Examination and biopsy

The doctor will put a thin tube into your back passage to examine the anal canal and rectum. This is called a proctoscopy. You’ll have this test in the hospital outpatients department or on a ward.

You will be asked to lie curled on your left side while the doctor gently passes a tube (proctoscope) into your back passage. The doctors can see any abnormal areas by using a tiny light and camera on the end of the tube. If necessary, they can take a small sample of cells (biopsy). These cells will be examined under a microscope. You should be able to go home as soon as the proctoscopy is over.

A proctoscopy can be uncomfortable and may be painful. If it is too painful, the doctor may arrange to examine you under an anaesthetic. This is so that the specialist can examine the area more closely and take biopsies.

A biopsy of the anal margin can sometimes be taken without using a proctoscope. A local anaesthetic will be used to numb the area before the biopsy is taken.


Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

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