- The “Desperate Housewives” star Marcia Cross has become a vocal anal-cancer survivor because she doesn’t want people to feel ashamed to talk about it.
- Anal cancer is one of more than a handful of cancers often caused by the ubiquitous human papillomavirus. You don’t have to be sexually active to get it.
- HPV-related cancers can be avoided with a vaccine.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The “Desperate Housewives” star Marcia Cross isn’t shy about saying that she’s had anal cancer — or that, like more than nine out of 10 people with the diagnosis, she likely got it from the ubiquitous human papillomavirus, or HPV.
“It’s a virus,” she told Insider on Tuesday. “It’s not something that you do wrong. It doesn’t have to do with whatever sexual life you have.”
Cross had just finished speaking at what she said was her last anal-cancer outreach event this year, The Atlantic’s People v. Cancer conference.
“Going back to work would be nice after this,” the actress said with a laugh.
Cross was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2017, and she first spoke about it on Instagram in 2018 when she struggled publicly with hair loss.
Now that her cancer is in remission with a low chance of recurrence, she’s become a vocal advocate for destigmatizing both HPV and the anal cancer it can cause. It’s estimated that 91% of anal cancers are a result of HPV.
Cross’ husband, Tom Mahoney, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009. (His cancer is also now in remission.) Eight years later, Cross had cancer too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US and that about 40% of Americans may be infected with the virus at any given time. (White men are the demographic most likely to have it.) Nearly all adults have had HPV at some point, and the virus can lay dormant in the body for years before an HPV-related cancer pops up in a person’s body.
Every year, roughly 44,000 HPV-related cancers spring up across the US.
“The virus doesn’t spread through the bloodstream — it’s really spread through secretions,” Dr. Marshall Posner, the director of head and neck oncology at Mount Sinai (and one of the doctors who treated Cross’ husband), told a crowd at the conference. “We think that this is a disease that’s transmitted by physical contact between people, and that’s often intimate contact.”
You don’t necessarily have to be sexually active to contract the virus.
“Everybody’s infected with it by the time the time they’re in their 20s,” Posner said. “You don’t have to have actual sexual contact to transmit the virus. It’s transmitted by saliva, by secretions, by kissing, by saliva on your pants if you touch your body.”
Cross decided she had to do something to help get people comfortable talking about anal cancer, a diagnosis that’s relatively rare compared with colon and rectum cancers but is on the rise in the US.
“What I found out was that people with anal cancer were mostly dealing with gobs of shame, lying about it,” Cross said. “I thought, ‘Oh dear, I can’t not help.'”
There is a three-dose vaccine that can prevent HPV-linked cancers, and it’s recommended for all kids by age 12. (Cross’ twin girls have both had their first dose, she said.) The shot course is safe, effective, and recommended for people of all genders 26 and under who are not yet vaccinated.
Older adults won’t benefit as much from getting the HPV vaccine, but people can still get it up until age 45. Routine cervical-cancer screenings can also help prevent cases of HPV-linked cancer.
For those with anal cancer, Cross recommended finding support groups, like the network available online through the Anal Cancer Foundation.