Farrah Fawcett lost her battle to anal cancer in June after a two-year, very public struggle. Her story and the accompanying media coverage raised awareness of this rare type of cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) predicts 5,290 new cases of anal cancer in 2009. This is tiny compared to other types of cancers. The NCI estimates one million new cases of skin cancer in 2009, almost 200,000 new cases of breast cancer and 219,000 new cases of lung cancer.

When you understand the biology of cancer, it's easy to believe it could develop in even the most unlikely places in the body.

Cancer 101

Our body is made up of cells. When they die, they are replaced by new cells that form from old cells dividing. Cells in turn are made up of genetic material (you know it as DNA). Sometimes, cell can become damaged and begin to divide uncontrollably. These extra cells may stick together and form a tumor. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of our body through our blood and lymph systems.

Rare cancers

Fawcett is not the only well-known figure to battle a rare form of cancer. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, had neuroendocrine cancer, a rare type of pancreatic cancer that accounts for less than five percent of the 32,000 annual pancreatic cancer diagnoses. And if you are old enough to remember the 1960s pop group the Monkees, Monkee Peter Tork has a rare form of head and neck cancer.

In addition to the three rare cancers mentioned above, here are a few others the National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Disease lists:

  • Fallopian tube
  • Salivary gland
  • Testes
  • Penis
  • Adrenal gland
  • Bile duct or tract
  • Bone
  • Brain stem
  • Childhood bladder, breast, colon and rectum, esophagus, thyroid

The Rare Disease Act of 2002 and the U.S. Orphan Drug Act define a rare disease as one that affects less than 200,000 people in the U.S. The purpose of this legislation was to put more emphasis on research and treatment for these less common diseases.

If you have a rare form of cancer, it's harder to find information about it. Here are a few places to start.

National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Disease Research-- http://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/Default.aspx

National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD)-- http://www.rarediseases.org/

Rare Cancer Alliance-- http://www.rare-cancer.org/