Supportive care for anal cancer

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Supportive care helps with the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of cancer. This important part of cancer care focuses on improving the quality of life of people with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Adjusting to life after treatment is different for everyone. Your recovery will depend on many different factors, such as where the cancer was in your body, the stage of the cancer, the organs and tissues removed during surgery, the type of treatment and side effects.

If you have been treated for anal cancer, you may have the following concerns.


Diarrhea is a common problem for people treated for anal cancer. This is because the digestive system is very sensitive to treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy. An abdominoperineal resection may also cause diarrhea.

Diarrhea usually goes away after treatment is finished, but sometimes it can last several months or years after treatment.

Making changes to your diet can help manage diarrhea. You can try limiting certain foods and drinks, such as greasy foods, high-fibre foods, coffee, tea and alcohol. Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian if you have questions or concerns about your diet. Your healthcare team may also recommend medicines to help manage diarrhea.

In addition to diarrhea, some people may not be able to control their bowel movements (called incontinence). This often happens if treatment damages the muscles of the anal sphincter. Tell your healthcare team if you have incontinence. Special pads or undergarments can help protect your skin and avoid odour. In some cases, you may have surgery to repair the anal sphincter. If the anal sphincter can’t be fixed, you may need a colostomy.

Find out more about diarrhea.


Some treatments for anal cancer can cause sexual problems or make having sex difficult. For example, it is common to lose interest in sex around the time of diagnosis and during treatment. Some people may not be able to have anal sex because of cancer or its treatments.

Radiation therapy or an abdominoperineal resection may lead to erectile dysfunction, which means not be able to have or keep an erection. These treatments can also lead to ejaculation problems, including dry orgasm (no semen is ejaculated). Find out more about managing these types of sexual problems.

Radiation therapy may cause the vagina to become irritated and dry, which can make sex painful or uncomfortable. Having vaginal sex can also be painful if scar tissue or adhesions develop in the abdomen from an abdominoperineal resection. Find out more about managing these types of sexual problems.

Talk to your healthcare team if you are having problems with sex. They can suggest ways to help you manage these problems, such as medicines or special devices. Some people find that counselling helps them cope with the effects that anal cancer and its treatments have on their sexual relationships.

Living with a colostomy

A colostomy creates an artificial opening (called a stoma) from the colon to the outside of the body through the abdominal wall. A colostomy bag is attached to the stoma to collect food waste from the colon.

If you have an abdominoperineal resection, you will need a permanent colostomy. This surgery removes the muscles of the anal sphincter, and without them you cannot have a bowel movement (poop).

Specially trained healthcare professionals called enterostomal therapists will help you adapt to having a colostomy. They will teach you how to live with a colostomy and care for the stoma. Local or national ostomy groups and associations can also give you support and information.

Find out more about colostomy.

Questions to ask about supportive care

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about supportive care.

Expert review and references

  • Shahid Ahmed , MD, FRCPC, PhD, FACP

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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