Marcia Cross Is Sharing Her Anal Cancer Story in the Hopes of Ending the ‘Stigma’

Julie Mazziotta

Almost a year and a half after getting diagnosed with anal cancer, Marcia Cross is starting to feel like herself again, but a different version — “a new me,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue.

The former Desperate Housewives star, 57, says that the experience changed her — after three months of “gnarly” treatment and several more of finding her new normal, the self-described “introverted extrovert” decided to share her story publicly. Cross started with an Instagram post where she asked for advice on managing hair loss from cancer, and eventually opened up about the disease.

“I want to help put a dent in the stigma around anal cancer,” she says. “I’ve read a lot of cancer-survivor stories, and many people, women especially, were too embarrassed to say what kind of cancer they had. There is a lot of shame about it. I want that to stop.”

JB Lacroix/WireImage

Cross learned that she had anal cancer in Nov. 2017 during her annual checkup with her gynecologist. Her doctor administered a digital rectal exam and immediately sent Cross to a colon and rectal surgeon. Two biopsies later, doctors confirmed that she had anal cancer, and started her on six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.

For more of Cross’ exclusive interview, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Perry Hagopian

“Surgery wasn’t recommended, which was a relief. You want to preserve sphincter muscles if possible,” she says. “Having woken up to its importance, I am now a big fan of the anus!”

Cross read that the treatment would be “difficult,” so she made a point to find the humor in everything.

“In the beginning, I just sort of lay down for the parting of the cheeks and I would float away,” she says, laughing. “Because what are you going to do?”

Now nearly a year in remission and with a low chance of a recurrence, according to her doctor, Cross is grateful to have everything working properly.

“Every time I go to the bathroom, I think, ‘That’s awesome! Thank you, body,’ ” she says.

RELATED VIDEO: Olivia Newton-John Opens Up About Recent Health Scare, Death Rumors and How She’s Really Doing with Cancer

And she wants people to be aware of the symptoms — which can include anal bleeding, pain, itching and lumps — so they they can discuss any concerns with their doctor.

“If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your body and talk to your doctor,” says Cross. “Don’t let it go. It’s a very curable cancer if caught early, which mine was.”

“If you or a loved one are diagnosed, the Anal Cancer Foundation is an amazing resource,” she adds. “And one I turned to often.”