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Farrah Fawcett Dies of Anal Cancer

Fawcett, 62, Was Diagnosed With Anal Cancer in 2006

By Miranda Hitti
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

June 25, 2009 -- Former "Charlie's Angel" Farrah Fawcett died today at age 62 after a long struggle with anal cancer, her spokesman told media organizations.

Fawcett's movie and TV roles after Charlie's Angels included The Cannonball Run, The Burning Bed, Small Sacrifices, Extremities, and The Apostle. Fawcett's swimsuit poster made her an icon in the 1970s. She and Ryan O'Neal have a son, Redmond, born in 1985.

Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006.

At the time, Fawcett got radiation and chemotherapy to treat her cancer, but in May 2007, Fawcett learned that her cancer was back and that it had spread to her liver as stage IV cancer.

Fawcett had traveled to Germany six times seeking cancer treatment. That treatment included chemotherapy, surgery to remove the original anal cancer, laser treatments of the tumors in her liver, and other surgeries and procedures that were mentioned but not specified in Farrah's Story, a documentary shown on NBC in May 2009.

That documentary shows Fawcett being told, in early 2008, that her liver tumors were no longer active. Her U.S. doctor, Lawrence Piro, MD, explains in the documentary that Fawcett wasn't cancer free, but that "each of the known sites of tumor in the liver had all been treated and, on scans, were looking inactive." Piro is the president and CEO of The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles.

But in the spring of 2008, scans showed new tumors in Fawcett's liver and regrowth of her original anal tumor.

In the summer of 2008, Fawcett entered a clinical trial of an experimental drug in the U.S., but those treatments did not prove successful and scans showed that her tumor was progressing. Fawcett also switched to other chemotherapy drugs, which made her hair fall out -- something that Piro says Fawcett had wanted to avoid in her earlier cancer treatment.

After her sixth trip to Germany for more treatments -- described only as "surgical procedures" in her documentary -- Fawcett was hospitalized in April 2009 because of a blood clot.

Earlier this year, WebMD spoke to the American Cancer Society's Debbie Saslow, PhD, about anal cancer. Here's what Saslow shared:

What Is Anal Cancer?

Anal cancer is a rare malignancy that starts in the anus -- the opening at the end of the rectum.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 5,290 new cases of anal cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S in 2009 and that 710 people in the U.S. will die from the disease this year.

For comparison, the American Cancer Society predicts 40,870 new cases of rectal cancer and 106,100 new cases of colon cancer in the U.S. in 2009.

About half of all anal cancers are diagnosed before the malignancy has spread beyond the primary site, while about a third are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes only and 10% are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to distant organs.

When it is found early, anal cancer is highly treatable.

According to the American Cancer Society, the overall five-year survival rate following diagnosis of anal cancer is 60% for men and 71% for women.

When the cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stage, five-year survival is 82%. If it has spread to surrounding lymph nodes, five-year survival drops to 60%. And when it has spread to distant organs, about 20% of patients live for five years or more.

Who Gets Anal Cancer?

Most anal cancers are diagnosed in people who are between 50 and 80. Before age 50, anal cancer is more common in men, but after age 50 it is slightly more common in women, Saslow says.

Anal infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major risk factor for the cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, 85% of anal cancers are associated with persistent infection with the sexually transmitted virus.

Although an HPV vaccine is in use for the prevention of cervical cancer, it is not being given to prevent anal cancer.

"We have some promising data suggesting that the vaccine can prevent anal cancers, but this hasn't been proven," Saslow says.

According to both the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute, other risk factors for anal cancer include being over 50 years old, having many sexual partners, having receptive anal intercourse, having a weakened immune system, frequent anal redness and soreness, and being a smoker.

Some tumors that develop in the anus are noncancerous. Others start off as benign but develop into cancer over time.

What Are the Symptoms of Anal Cancer?

In some cases, there are no symptoms associated with anal cancer, but in about half of patients bleeding occurs and is often the first sign of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Because anal itching can also be a symptom of the cancer, many people initially attribute their bleeding and itching to hemorrhoids.

"Any time people have symptoms, they need to get it checked out even if they think they know what it is," Saslow says. "Anal cancer is rare, so it is not on many people's radar screens."

Other signs and symptoms of anal cancer can include:

  • Pain or pressure in the anal area
  • Unusual discharges from the anus
  • Lump near the anus
  • Change in bowel habits

How Is Anal Cancer Diagnosed?

Anal cancer can be detected during a routine digital rectal exam or during a minor procedure, such as removal of what is believed to be a hemorrhoid.

The cancer may also be found with more invasive procedures such as an anoscopy, proctoscopy, or endorectal ultrasound.

If cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be done and will be examined by a pathologist.

How Is Anal Cancer Treated?

Standard treatments for anal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

According to the American Cancer Society, treatment usually involves two or more of these treatment strategies.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy is currently the most widely used approach to initial treatment.

(Writer Salynn Boyles contributed to this report.)

SOURCES: Farrah's Story. WebMD Health News: "Farrah Fawcett's German Cancer Care." WebMD Health News: "Farrah Fawcett Is Fighting Cancer." WebMD Health News: "FAQ: Farrah Fawcett Fights Anal Cancer." The Internet Movie Database: "Biography for Farrah Fawcett.

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