Marcia Cross says her anal cancer treatment caused ‘excruciating’ sores and stomach troubles

marcia cross

  • "Desperate Housewives" actress Marcia Cross has been in remission from anal cancer since 2018, after she underwent chemotherapy in 2017.
  • Cross told Coping magazine that her treatment caused "gnarly" mouth sores and stomach troubles that she wasn't expecting.
  • "For whatever reason, I don't have any shame about [having anal cancer]," Cross said. "I'm a big fan of the anus."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Marcia Cross revealed new details about her anal cancer diagnosis, treatment, and remission in a new interview with Coping magazine, a publication for cancer caregivers and survivors.

In the interview, the "Desperate Housewives" actress explained how "gnarly" her chemotherapy treatment was because it resulted in painful mouth sores and stomach problems.

"I will say that when I had my first chemo treatment, I thought I was doing great. And then out of nowhere, I felt this sting in my lip; it was excruciating," Cross told writer Kaylene Isherwood.

In 2017, Cross was diagnosed with anal cancer, a disease that's becoming increasingly common, likely due to the spread of the common sexually transmitted infection HPV. If left untreated, HPV can lead to anal cancer, Insider previously reported.

Cross has been in remission since 2018, but still checks in with her doctor on a monthly basis. She's also become an outspoken anal-cancer survivor, raising awareness about the little-discussed disease.

"Here's the thing, I wasn't interested in becoming the anal cancer spokesperson. I wanted to move on with my career and my life," Cross told Isherwood. "But, as I was going through it, I read repeatedly about people who were ashamed, who were hiding, who were lying about their diagnosis."

Conversely, Cross said her diagnosis doesn't embarrass her and she's using that fact to destigmatize the condition.

"For whatever reason, I don't have any shame about that. I'm a big fan of the anus … I just have a lot of respect for this tiny, little two inches that makes our lives livable and pleasant," she said.

Most anal cancer cases are linked to HPV

Cross is one of few high-profile celebrities to discuss anal cancer, a disease that's on the rise.

When researchers behind a November 2019 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute examined cancer diagnosis and death data from 2001 to 2016 and compared it to years prior, they found the number of localized anal cancer rates, where the cancer was found only in the anus, had doubled. They also found that distant anal cancer rates, where the cancer spread to other parts of the body, had tripled.

In total, there were an estimated 69,000 cases of anal cancer and more than 12,000 anal cancer-related deaths during that 15-year period. 

The researchers also found that the most common strain of anal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, increased by 2.7% every year from 2001 through 2016 and that anal cancer death rates increased 3.1% annually for that same time period.

This increase could be related to the most common STI in the US, HPV, or human papillomavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 million Americans including teenagers are infected with HPV every year and an estimated 80 million Americans are currently infected with the STI.

Most people with the infection don't experience any serious health consequences. In fact, people with low-risk HPV often see the STI go away on its own with no treatment, according to Planned Parenthood, and 9 out of 10 HPV cases resolve themselves in about two years' time, the CDC website noted. 

But each year, 33,700 HPV cases result in some type of cancer — cervical, vaginal, penile, throat, or anal. This can happen if a person is infected with a high-risk strain of HPV because those forms can mutate a person's cells. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 100 known types of HPV and 14 are known to cause cancer.

The only potential symptom of HPV is genital warts, but most people with the STI don't show any symptoms, and so can unknowingly spread it to a partner during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. If a high-risk strain is passed, a partner can develop cancer, though HPV-related cancers may take years or decades to develop after a person becomes infected.

Cross previously speculated that was the case for her diagnosis

Cross appeared on "CBS This Morning," saying that doctors believe her anal cancer came from the same strain of HPV that caused her husband Tom Mahoney's throat cancer. Mahoney was diagnosed in 2009 and went into remission after treatment, but his cancer came back around the time Cross was diagnosed with anal cancer, People reported.

"I know there are people who are ashamed. You have cancer! You have to then also feel ashamed? Like you did something bad, you know, because it took up residence in your anus? I mean, come on, really. There's enough on your plate," Cross told CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook.

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