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Why "Desperate Housewives" star Marcia Cross is so eager to talk about anal cancer

Marcia Cross on ending anal cancer stigma
"Desperate Housewives" star Marcia Cross is on a mission to destigmatize anal cancer 05:38

During a visit to her gynecologist about a year-and-a-half ago, a routine digital rectal exam revealed Marcia Cross had a cancerous mass. The award-winning actress best known for her role as a perfect homemaker on the series "Desperate Housewives," would go on to be diagnosed with anal cancer.

After completing radiation and chemotherapy, Cross reached out to CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook to share her story. Cross is hoping to break down the taboo surrounding anal cancer.

"I know there are people who are ashamed. You have cancer! You have to then also feel ashamed? Like you did something bad, you know, because it took up residence in your anus? I mean, come on, really. There's enough on your plate," Cross told LaPook.

Saying the word "anus" as freely as she does now, didn't come easy.

"Even for me, it took a while. Anus, anus, anus! Ha. You just have to get used to it," she said.

As Bree Van de Kamp on "Desperate Housewives," Cross spent eight years serving up and showing off her many talents. How she thinks Bree would have handled the diagnosis? "She wouldn't have told a soul," Cross said.

She believes many people wouldn't. It's something she said breaks her heart.

According to the CDC, human papilloma virus – or HPV – causes more than 90 percent of anal cancers. The same virus can also cause cancer of the cervix, genitals, and throat and can spread from one person to another through sex or just by skin-to-skin contact. Cross says her annual rectal exam saved her life.

"You can say, okay this is embarrassing, this is uncomfortable and by time you know it, it's over. I mean lots of things in life are not fun. But you can bear it," Cross said.

During six weeks of radiation then two weeks of chemo, Cross leaned on her closest friends.

"What I had was a bevy of girlfriends … I called them my 'anal angels,'" Cross said. "You know, I kept saying, 'If this doesn't kill me, it's like the best thing that could have ever happened.' Because the experience of being loved like that … It blew my mind."

Back in 2009 as her twin daughters were turning two, her husband, Tom Mahoney, was diagnosed with throat cancer and began treatment.

"I would be like working all day. I would be in the emergency room at night. Plus, I had two toddlers. So it was a busy time," she said.

A grueling regimen put Mahoney in remission but what Cross didn't know then was the same type of HPV that likely triggered his throat cancer, can also cause cancer in the anus. In 2019, an estimated 8,300 people will be diagnosed with anal cancer. However, the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer can be prevented by the current vaccine.

As a parent, Cross was relieved to learn early immunization can protect the next generation. She said her daughters are up for their first shot at the end of the school year.

A year-and-a-half since her initial diagnosis, Cross said she's doing great.

"I'm feeling back to normal though it's a new normal," she said. "I don't think I'll ever take it for granted. I'm the girl who goes to the bathroom now and I go 'Yes! It's great what my body can do! I'm so grateful.'"

Statistically, anal cancer is on the rise. Cross hopes that sharing her story will help others get up the nerve to talk with their clinicians about what may be embarrassing symptoms like rectal bleeding, a lump in the area of the anus, or a change in bowel habits.

For more information about this disease visit: Anal Cancer Foundation

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