Treatment for anal cancer


Anal cancer needs to be treated by a specialist team in one of the specialist cancer centres in Ireland. As a result, you may be transferred to another hospital for your treatment. Your exact treatment plan will depend on what your doctor thinks is best for you. Treatments include:

  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Chemoradiation (chemotherapy and radiotherapy together)
  • Surgery


Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill the cancer cells in your anus. These rays are aimed directly at the cancer cells to destroy them while doing the least damage to normal cells. It is often given for 4 to 6 weeks. Please see our booklet Understanding Radiotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information on radiotherapy.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to cure or control cancer. The drugs can usually be taken in tablet form or injected into a vein. Some of the more common drugs used are:

Please see our booklet Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs, which you can download from our "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" list on the right hand side of this page, for more details.


Doctors often use a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat anal cancer. This is called chemoradiation. This combination treatment is usually very successful but the side-effects can be more severe.


Unlike other cancers, surgery is not the first treatment of choice for anal cancer. If your cancer is not fully gone after chemoradiation, you may need some surgery. The type of surgery will depend on your cancer and your doctor will discuss it with you in more detail. There are two main types of surgery:

  • Local resection
  • Abdominoperineal resection

Local resection: This surgery is used for small tumours. It only removes the area where the cancer cells are found.

Abdominoperineal resection: This is where your anus and rectum are removed. Having this surgery means that you will have a permanent colostomy. A colostomy is where your bowel opens onto the surface of your abdomen through a cut in your skin called a stoma. A bag is placed over this opening to collect your stool. You can speak with a specialist stoma nurse if you need this type of surgery.

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer is when the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. This can include your liver or your lungs. It may be possible to keep the cancer under control by surgery or chemotherapy. But it is unlikely that the cancer will be cured completely. Sometimes chemotherapy or radiotherapy can help to shrink the cancer and improve your symptoms. This is called palliative treatment.

The palliative care team may visit you during this time. This team can help with any of your symptoms and support you and your family through your treatment.

Learn more about treatments

Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may make you feel sick (nausea), vomit or have diarrhoea. You might also lose your appetite or your hair. Many treatments cause you to feel very tired (fatigue). Most of the side-effects do not last long and disappear once treatment is over. If you are receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy together, your symptoms may be more severe. These can include diarrhoea, sore and red skin around your anus, nausea and vomiting, tiredness (fatigue), sore mouth, inflamed feet and hands.

For more about coping with side-effects, download any of the Important cancer information booklets listed on the right hand side of this page, or learn more about side effects here.

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can advise you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a cancer nurse

Date Last Reviewed: 
Monday, January 28, 2019