Positive Life NSW Blog

Anal Cancer: Are women at risk?

Posted by on in Advocacy and Policy

IMAGE: Women in jeans stands with her hand on her hip

The rate of anal cancer is unacceptably high in HIV-positive gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.  But did you know that women are also at risk for anal cancer?

Women living with HIV (WLHIV) and women who are immunocompromised have a greater risk for developing cancers, in particular HPV (Human Papillomavirus) related cancers. Being immunocompromised means our immune system is less able to defend itself from infections because it is suppressed in some way; and when our immune systems are suppressed, it's harder to clear viral infections like HPV.

HIV, chemotherapy, taking prednisone, and autoimmune disorders can all compromise our immune systems. Some autoimmune disorders are more common in women than in men, for genetic reasons. Some examples of autoimmune conditions are:

  • Lupus
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Celiac disease
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Certain strains of HPV can lead to pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions in various parts of the body if the virus is not cleared by the immune system. The most common cancers that HPV causes are cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and throat cancers.

So while screening for anal cancer is often only thought to be important for gay men or men living with HIV, it's also important for WLHIV and other immunocompromised women to have regular Digital Ano-Rectal Examinations (DAREs). In fact, in a study of 251 women participating in the Women Interagency HIV Study (WIHS), 26% of HIV-positive women had symptoms of anal pre-cancer. The risk of anal and other HPV-related cancer increases with lower CD4 levels, or when HIV is not treated immediately.

This increased risk for HPV-related cancer is another important reason to encourage women to get tested so we know our HIV status. We know that women in Australia are often diagnosed with HIV later than men. On average, HIV-positive women in Australia had unknowingly been living with HIV for four years prior to their diagnosis. Having an untreated HIV infection for years can cause significant damage to an immune system, and therefore increases the risk for other illnesses like cancer. These ‘late diagnoses’ can be prevented if we change the status quo, and as women, demand that we are offered HIV tests at regular sexual health appointments.

Positive Life NSW wants to hear from you to learn more about ways that we can support women to know their HPV-related cancer risk and improve their health outcomes. We are inviting all women to take part in our anonymous, eight-minute survey via this link: www.surveymonkey.com/r/hpvwomensurvey

The results of this survey will help Positive Life improve advocacy for prevention, support services, and infrastructure. No identifying information will be collected.

When we are informed we are empowered, and empowered women empower women!

If you have any questions or concerns or want to talk to a peer, you can call the Treatment Officers at Positive Life on (02) 9206-2177 or talk to your sexual health clinic nurses or your doctor.

For more information on the survey you can call Katya on (02) 9206 2177 or email katyas@positivelife.org.au

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Guest Thursday, 24 October 2019

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