On Battling Anal Cancer and Breaking the Stigma of HPV
by Kaylene Isherwood
With her fiery red hair and striking beauty, actress Marcia Cross is instantly recognizable. Best known for her role as uptight suburban homemaker Bree Van de Kamp on the ABC comedy-drama series Desperate Housewives, Marcia has an acting resumé that spans more than three decades and boasts two Screen Actors Guild Awards. In addition to Housewives, for which she earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, she’s also starred in 90s prime time soap opera Melrose Place, The WB’s Everwood, and most recently, Quantico on ABC.
A diagnosis of anal cancer
In November 2017, Marcia was hit with shocking news after a routine gynecological check-up. While performing a digital rectal exam, Marcia’s doctor felt something wasn’t right, so she set up an appointment for Marcia at a nearby clinic.
“I was actually kind of sad because I was going to miss my daughter’s basket- ball game,” Marcia shares in a recent interview with Coping® magazine. “I thought, Oh, maybe I could reschedule that appointment. But since she had set it up, I thought it’d be very rude not to go, so I went. The doctor examined me and said, ‘I just want you to know that whatever it is, it’s curable.’ I went from being in la-la land, literally, to what!? I think I just kind of left my body.”
Two biopsies and one colonoscopy later, Marcia was diagnosed with anal cancer. Fortunately, it was detected early (she hadn’t even begun experiencing symptoms), and she received a good prognosis.
“I felt very lucky because the only reason that it was discovered is because I had a such a thorough, wonderful gynecologist,” Marcia says. “I kind of owe her my life.”
Marcia later found out that her anal cancer was likely related to HPV (human papillomavirus), which she hadn’t previously been diagnosed with. HPV causes more than 90 percent of anal cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus can also cause a number of other cancers, including cervical, throat, and genital cancer, most of which can be prevented with the HPV vaccine.
I take nothing for granted, nothing. Just as we are seeing right now [with the COVID-19 pandemic], our entire world just changed on a dime.
From cancer caregiver to cancer survivor
About eight years before Marcia’s cancer diagnosis, her husband, Tom Mahoney, was diagnosed with throat cancer. A cancer which the couple later learned was also likely caused by the same type of HPV that led to Marcia’s anal cancer. At once, Marcia found herself thrust into the position of caring for her husband while also raising twin toddlers and pursuing her acting career.
However, this was not the first time she had taken on the role of cancer caregiver. In 1993, Marcia lost her then-boyfriend, fellow actor Richard Jordan, to brain cancer. This early run-in with the disease helped prepare her for what was to come.
“When Tom was diagnosed, I thought, Oh my god, I never thought my history with this was ever going to be something positive,” Marcia says. “It was because I had been through it before – I’m not the greatest with details about normal life, but I am quite fantastic in a crisis – I really knew what to do. I was able to use that experience, and that helped me to take care of Tom. And by the time it got to me, it was kind of old hat.”
Finding her new normal
“The side effects are so gnarly,” Marcia shares. “I’m really happy with people that were really honest about it, because doctors like to play it down since they don’t want you to freak out. But I did read a lot online, and I used the Anal Cancer Foundation’s website [AnalCancerFoundation.org], and they were pretty specific about things. So, I was kind of ready for what was to come.
“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. It was from the chemo. So I did learn after that to be proactive and get ahead of things because I thought, I don’t need that rinse, or these drugs, or whatever, and then I found myself in the thick of it, and I had gastric problems, mouth sores, all the terrible things that can happen with chemotherapy … It’s certainly not fun.”
Marcia has now been in remission since 2018 and sees her gastroenterologist every three months for check-ups. However, finding a new normal after undergoing cancer treatment took some time for the Emmy-nominated actress.
“I’m very lucky, but it does take a while for your body to kind of get back to normal,” Marcia says. “I say the new normal is that I am more sensitive of what I eat and take better care of myself and my diet … I do like to remind people that there is life post-cancer, and after a certain time, it won’t be the first thing you think about every day.”
Despite the challenges, Marcia says she views her diagnosis as a gift. “Because it does change you,” she asserts. “And it does wake you up to how precious every day is. I take nothing for granted, nothing. Just as we are seeing right now [with the COVID-19 pandemic], our entire world just changed on a dime.”
On breaking the news to her girls
Having already dealt with cancer twice as a caregiver and knowing how difficult it can be for loved ones, Marcia was hesitant to tell her twin 10-year-old daughters about her diagnosis.
“I didn’t want them to see me sick,” Marcia shares. “No one wants to go down that road. That part is awful. When my husband was sick, they were so little that they just didn’t even know. They would mimic him and do things like any kids would do, not knowing that it’s not normal to feed yourself through your stomach … So, I really didn’t like that part. I even thought of being treated at another hospital out of state, [but] I decided it didn’t feel right to me.”
When Marcia and Tom finally sat their kids down to share the unwelcome news, the actress says, “Their first reactions were anger … It was a defensive reaction, and they just said ‘no.’ I was shocked by it, but now it makes total sense because it’s not the way it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to take care of them. You’re supposed to be OK.
I went from being in la-la land, literally, to what!? I think I just kind of left my body.
“But they were wonderful, and my husband was wonderful. And they weathered it beautifully. I’m sure it had effects, and I think getting back to normal took some time. I could feel their need to really reconnect in a deep way and talk about what they had been through.”
Destigmatizing anal cancer and HPV
Many people living with HPV-related cancers are hesitant to speak up about their diagnosis because of the stigma associated with the virus, even though about 80 percent of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. On top of that, these types of cancer are typically in areas of the body that are considered taboo to discuss.
Marcia also kept her anal cancer diagnosis private at first, quietly undergoing treatment away from the public eye. Then, once she was done with treatment, she just wanted to move on with her life and put cancer behind her. But she thought about how other anal cancer survivors were suffering because they were facing a cancer no one talked about. That’s when she decided to speak out about her diagnosis. She’s now become an outspoken advocate for removing the stigma surrounding HPV-related cancers and the HPV vaccine.
“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,” Marcia admits. “But, as I was going through it, I read repeatedly about people who were ashamed, who were hiding, who were lying about their diagnosis. And on the other side, how doctors were not comfortable talking about it. And women were not given the follow up care they needed. They weren’t told things like your vagina could develop scar tissue, which it does. And you have to do things afterward to take care of yourself. I just saw how, oh my gosh, we are so behind on all of this because it’s our anuses!
“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. I really think to destigmatize it is the way to go. It’s just silly … We all have one. It’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2020.