Farrah Fawcett had guts. The heart-stoppingly beautiful woman steamed up the airwaves in the ‘70s as Jill Munroe in the hit TV series Charlie’s Angels, and redefined the poster business when an iconic shot of her in a red swimsuit sold an unrivalled 12 million copies. But she ditched the obvious cheesecake career path to give a wrenching portrayal of an abused woman in “The Burning Bed” and followed up with strong performances in “The Apostle” and as a rape victim looking for vengeance in “Extremities.” Her acting career was somewhat checkered, but she sure didn’t take the easy route that was more than available to her.
Many women cheered, too, when Farrah posed for Playboy at the age of 50, proving that sexy doesn’t end with middle-age.
When she was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006 she showed equal courage. Furious about leaks to the tabloids that could only have come from full access to her medical records, she set a trap at the UCLA Medical Center and spurred new privacy policies.
At first she was told she’d beaten the cancer after the tumor was removed; anal cancer is highly curable if caught early. But the cancer returned with a vengeance and spread to her liver. She made headlines when she went for alternative treatment in Germany, and in April was again hospitalized, reportedly because of a blood clot that resulted from her treatment overseas.
Farrah had taken a camera to record the doctor’s appointment where she discovered that the cancer had returned, and she asked her friend Alana Stewart to continue filming her absolutely unsparingly as she went through treatment. Stewart was unhappy about filming some highly personal moments, but Farrah insisted that this, after all, is what cancer is.
The resulting footage was made into a documentary called “Farrah’s Story." An estimated nine million viewers tuned in to a devastatingly honest portrayal of what cancer can do, both physically and emotionally. And even though she had perhaps the most famous hair in the world, it began falling out like just about anyone else’s hair after chemotherapy, and so the documentary shows Farrah taking a razor to it—just like anyone else.
Anal cancer is very rare. In the US just 5,290 new cases will be diagnosed this year and only about 710 of those will die. It’s believed that the human papillomavirus, HPV, causes anal cancer. HPV is extremely common and about 80 percent of the population will contract it at some point in their lives; however an estimated 90-95 percent of those cases will clear themselves.
Persistent infections, which can cause the lesions that lead to cervical or anal cancer, usually take hold because of a weak immune system, often caused by poor diet or smoking—smoking can increase the chance of getting a persistent infection by up to 27 times. Having many sexual partners also dramatically increases the risk. Conversely, a diet high in fruit and vegetables can decrease the risk by 50 percent or more.
A doctor should check out any symptoms like bleeding or itching around the anus, swollen lymph nodes in the groin or anal area, changed bowel habits or an abnormal discharge. A digital exam during a Pap test, colonoscopy or prostate cancer screening will usually pick up problems.
The controversial Gardasil vaccine also tries to protect against four HPV strains, two that cause 67-70 percent of cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts. A recent study shows it to be
about 17-45 percent effective against pre-cancerous cells, and there is some concern that any of the 40-odd other cancer-causing strains of HPV might move into the vacancy left by the four Gardasil strains. Gardasil has been associated with a number of side-effects from syncope and convulsions to immune diseases, ALS and even death, although no links have been proven.
Our heartfelt condolences to Ms. Fawcett’s family and friends.