Anal Cancer: Screening

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about screening for anal cancer. You will also learn the risks and benefits of screening. Use the menu to see other pages.

Screening is used to look for cancer before you have any symptoms or signs. Scientists have developed, and continue to develop, tests that can be used to screen a person for specific types of cancer. The overall goals of cancer screening are to:

  • Lower the number of people who die from the disease, or eliminate deaths from cancer altogether

  • Lower the number of people who develop the disease

Learn more about the basics of cancer screening.

Screening information for anal cancer

Cancer screening is done to find cancer as early as possible in people who don’t yet have any signs of the disease.

Anal cytology is a test being developed that doctors can use for people who don’t have symptoms of anal cancer but do have a high risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), such as HPV or HIV. The test is sometimes called an anal Pap test or anal Pap smear because it is similar to a cervical Pap test, which looks for cervical cancer. During this test, a health care provider swabs the anal lining for a sample. Those cells are then examined in a lab under a microscope to see if there are early cellular changes that might lead to cancer or if cancer has already developed.

Some health care providers are advocating the routine use of this test for people who have a higher risk of developing anal cancer. Talk with your primary care doctor about anal cancer screening if you are in any of these groups that have a higher risk of developing anal cancer:

  • People who have HIV

  • People who regularly have anal sex

  • People who have a history of anal warts or precancerous cell growth on the anus

  • People who have a history of abnormal cell growth caused by HPV on another part of the body

  • People who have had another HPV-related cancer, like cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, or vaginal cancer

  • People with a suppressed immune system from an autoimmune disorder, being a transplant recipient, or long-term use of medication that weakens the immune system

Because most adults in the United States have been exposed to HPV, it is important to talk with your doctor or other health care professional about your risk factors and whether or not anal cytology is right for you.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what changes or medical problems anal cancer can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.