Cross, who completed radiation and chemotherapy and is in remission, wants to raise awareness and end shame surrounding anal cancer — which has been on the rise over the past several decades, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“I know that there are people who are ashamed,” Cross, 57, said on “CBS This Morning.”
“You have cancer. Should you then also feel like ashamed like you did something bad because it took up residence in your anus?”
A broader look at HPV and cancer shows that, while anal cancer is uncommon, Cross’ case is in some ways typical.
HPV is behind the majority of cases
The most common type of anal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, originates in the cells lining the anal canal, according to the US National Library of Medicine. Typically, anal cancer spreads slowly and, if caught early, is often curable.
About the virus
There are 150 types of HPV, but most are rare and only 14 are considered high-risk for cancer.
HPV infections mostly go away on their own, but some remain and can cause cervix, vagina and vulva cancer in women; penile cancer in men; and genital warts, anal cancer and head and neck cancers in both sexes. HPV-associated cancers are more likely to occur in the throat and cervix than the anus.
Other risk factors for anal cancer include HIV, smoking, and any medications or conditions that might weaken the immune system.
When it comes to screening, the jury’s out
Anal cancers are sometimes found through rectal exams — part of a routine pelvic exam by a gynecologist, in Cross’ case. These cancers may cause symptoms like pain or bleeding, but they often don’t in earlier stages.
“I was so not thinking anything was wrong because I didn’t have any symptoms, and she gave me an exam and came around and said, ‘Well, I just want you to know, whatever it is, it’s curable,’ ” Cross said. “It was like ‘What? What are you talking about?’ “
The American Cancer Society says that certain groups at higher risk — like recipients of an organ transplant and men who have sex with men — might benefit from a screening measure like the “anal pap,” which looks for precancerous cellular changes when the anus is swabbed. But there’s no widely accepted recommendation.
Treatment options include radiation, chemotherapy and surgery — though the outcome may depend on a number of factors including how large the cancer has become, where it might have spread and what other health issues a patient has.
CNN’s Lisa Respers France and Sandee LaMotte contributed to this report.