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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Anal Cancer

Photo of intravenous drug bag

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. For this treatment, you see a medical oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in using drugs to treat cancer. For anal cancer, your doctor is likely to give you more than one drug. This is called combination chemotherapy.

You may take these drugs by an intravenous (IV) into a vein or in a pill. Either way, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment because the drugs travel all through the body in your bloodstream. Most people with anal cancer have chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. In some cases, depending on your health or the drugs you take, you may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles. This means you are treated for a period of time with chemotherapy and then you have a rest period. Each treatment and rest period make up one cycle. You'll likely have more than one cycle of treatment. Your doctor will explain what your treatment plan will be and what you can expect. The length of each treatment period differs depending on the type of drug you take. With many types of chemotherapy, monthly treatments are common. Sometimes you will get chemotherapy more often.

Common chemotherapy drug combinations

These are the main chemotherapy regimens doctors use to treat anal cancer:

  • 5-FU (5-fluorouracil) and mitomycin C

  • 5-FU and cisplatin

Doctors often give chemotherapy in combination with radiation therapy. This is called chemoradiation.

For some people, anal cancer comes back. This can happen even when treatment with chemotherapy and radiation is effective. If the cancer is growing near the anus, the doctor may recommend surgery. If the cancer has spread away from the anus, the doctor may recommend more chemotherapy.

Potential side effects of chemotherapy for anal cancer

Chemotherapy affects both normal cells and cancer cells. Side effects depend on the type and amount of drugs you take. Ask your doctor which ones are the most likely to happen to you. Here are some common side effects that people with anal cancer have when they take chemotherapy:

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Sexual changes

  • Fatigue

  • Hair loss

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea and vomiting 

  • Loss of appetite

  • Low blood cell counts