Glenwood cancer survivor on a mission to raise awareness
September 1, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Nova Loverro Sprick grew up during a time when people would shy away from any mention of the C-word in general, let alone something as unappealing as anal cancer.
It used to be that way with breast cancer in the 1960s, recalled Sprick, who three years ago was diagnosed with anal cancer – the same type of cancer that recently claimed the life of actress Farrah Fawcett.
Today, there’s the Susan G. Komen Foundation with its pink ribbon campaigns, charity runs and bike rides focused on raising awareness and funds for breast cancer research.
Support groups are plentiful for this and other types of cancer, and survival rates for many cancers have increased in recent years.
So, Sprick is on a mission to bring a greater level of awareness and attention to anal cancer, a still rare type of cancer but one that is becoming more frequent, especially among women between the ages of 50 and 70.
“I am happy to lovingly put my face to this horrible-sounding disease in an effort to help other women know the risks and early warning signs so that they may not only survive this fairly curable disease, but maybe avoid the harsh treatment once it reaches [later stages],” said the 55-year-old yoga instructor from Glenwood Springs.
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“I’d never even heard of it before,” said Sprick, who found out through a routine colonoscopy that she had the disease.
Even her doctor at the time initially referred to it as a “rare form of rectal cancer.” She later learned that there is a difference, in that colon or colorectal cancer is in the internal organs, whereas most anal cancers are actually a type of skin cancer known as a squamous cell cancer.
She also learned of other women in the area who had been diagnosed with anal cancer and set up a loose-knit support group with them.
“It’s supposed to be a rare cancer, but suddenly I knew of four right here in the valley,” she said. “It is a cancer that is becoming less rare. I’ve been getting e-mails weekly from women around the country.”
Sprick’s initial Internet research led her to a few references to anal cancer associated with HIV-positive men.
But the common link for women in her age group was the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can also cause cervical cancer.
“Eighty percent of the population has HPV,” Sprick said of the sexually transmitted virus. Usually, HPV lies dormant and does not cause cancer. “Most of us probably got it in our 20s when we had several sex partners.”
Squamous cell cancers, detected early as a precancerous lesion, can be removed by a dermatologist, typically without further treatment. But most anal cancers are not caught that early.
Some are misdiagnosed as hemorrhoids initially, leaving them to progress. Sprick’s cancer was not detected until stage 2, still a fairly early stage for this slow-growing type of cancer, but one that required a combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“It is a very rough treatment,” Sprick said, adding she nearly died and had to have a blood transfusion at one point.
Later stage anal cancer requires even more aggressive treatments and potentially the surgical removal of the anus and rectum, which have to be replaced with a new canal that empties into a colostomy bag.
Sprick says the harsh treatment associated with the later stages, not to mention the risk of death, can be avoided if people know what to be aware of early on.
“If you have been diagnosed with hemorrhoids and they don’t seem to go away, it’s a good idea to have them checked out, because they may not be hemorrhoids,” she said.
One way to find out for sure is to request an anoscope, an in-office procedure that can determine whether it is in fact a hemorrhoid, she said.
Sprick also suggests that women and men over age 45 specifically ask for a rectal examination during their yearly check-up.
An anal PAP smear is also recommended, she said, especially if a woman has had an abnormal vaginal PAP indicating the presence of HPV.
Some symptoms that can be early warning signs include: itching, thin stools, pressure in the anus, any change in bowel habits, bleeding or any other discharge from the anus.
“I know it’s hard … to say – anal cancer,” Sprick said. “But we need to get the word out. That’s one of the reasons I’m fine with it, and it’s not something we have to be ashamed about. It’s something that happens to healthy, well-respected individuals.”
Sprick is also working with other anal cancer survivors to set up a national online support group to offer helpful tips and information, at http://www.analcancerinformation.com.
Meanwhile, Sprick said she has also found support in her own recovery through her yoga. A yoga instructor for about 10 years, she currently teaches at the Hot Springs Health Club and through Valley View Hospital’s wellness program.
“One of the hardest things is getting over the fear of getting [the cancer] back again,” she said. “We have to rid ourselves of that attachment and learn how to detach from it.”