Cancer Q&A: Farrah Fawcett's Battle

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The topic of anal cancer has gotten a lot of media attention lately because of Farrah Fawcett's very public battle with the disease. And it's raised a lot of important questions about advances in cancer treatment and the future for patients fighting the battle of their lives.

What is anal cancer and who is at risk for it?

Anal cancer is characterized by the growth of a tumor around the anus a• which is opening at the end of the intestinal tract - and it's completely different from colon cancer. A large proportion of anal cancers have tested positive for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease, but this isn't the only cause.

Other patient populations at a greater risk for developing anal cancer include patients with multiple sexual partners, those who participate in anal intercourse, smokers, people with immunosuppressive diseases, such as HIV, and people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases.


What is the treatment for anal or intestinal cancer?

If it's caught early, the most common treatment for anal cancer is surgery. But in patients whose cancer affects the anal sphincter, having surgery to remove the tumor and cancerous cells can lead to fecal incontinence causing the need for a permanent colostomy. So often for these patients, radiation and chemotherapy may be the preferred course of treatment. For later stage anal cancers, doctors treat patients with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.


What is the cure rate for anal cancer?

Well a• like any cancer, early detection greatly increases the chance of survival. If it's caught in the early stage, there is an 86 percent five year survival rate. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the survival rate decreases to 54 percent. Up to 10 percent of patients treated for anal cancer will develop cancer elsewhere in the body.


What kind of advances are we making in cancer research?

We have made advances with regard to the surgical treatment of cancers by offering minimally invasive surgeries. In some cases, we're able to provide surgical treatments with less negative side effects and shorter recovery time. Clinical studies have shown that other treatments like radiation and chemotherapy may be just as effective as surgery without many of the negative side effects.

With regard to medical treatments, there have certainly been advances in the kinds of treatments we're using. New medical technologies are making it possible for doctors to individualize a patient's treatment by studying the genetic makeup of their particular cancer - ultimately decreasing the chances of recurrence or spread of the cancer, and increasing a patient's survival outcome.


What are the major milestones/accomplishments we've seen in cancer research recently?

Well again, one of the major milestones is being able to identify the genetic makeup of cancers individual to each patient.

The other advancement is the research that's been done in molecular-targeted therapies. These therapies target the development of cancers by inhibiting the growth of the disease at the cellular level - which we hope will be able to limit or potentially even stop the cancer from spreading.

Molecular-targeted therapy is a more specific treatment than chemotherapy, because chemo treatment kills off not only the bad cells - but also the healthy cells in the body. So with a therapy that is very specific in its attack of cancerous cells, the hope is that it should more be effective in stopping the development of the cancer.


What are some tips for preventing cancer?

We've all heard it time and time again - good health comes from making healthy choices. So my first tip would be stop smoking! I'm sure I don't have to tell you, cigarettes are full of cancer-causing agents and have been linked to the development of many cancers in the body.

Second, everything in moderation including alcohol! If you're the kind of person who enjoys a nice cocktail, make sure you do it in moderation, which means 1 or 2 glasses - preferrably of red wine - or else, just avoid alcohol all together.

Make healthy dietary choices. Try to maintain a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fruits and vegetables. Both provide essential nutrients and antioxidants which help ward off disease. Limit the amount of read meat you consume, since high levels of it have been linked to certain cancers.

Recent studies have shown that vitamin D may play an important role protecting against the development of certain diseases. Because exposure to small amounts of sunlight causes the body to produce healthy amounts of vitamin D, people who live in cold environments or places with extended seasons of darkness may want to consider getting their vitamin D levels checked and taking supplements.

And finally - know your family history so you can better determine your risk for other cancers, because your screenings for certain cancers may start earlier than what is recommended to the general population, and preventive therapies may be an option for you.

Dr. Cynara Coomer is an assistant professor of surgery specializing in breast health and breast cancer surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She is a FOX News Health contributor providing medical expertise on a variety of topics in cancer research with a focus on women's health, breast diseases and tips for healthy breasts at any age.