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HIV and Cancer: Risks, Types, and Treatments

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  • The HIV/Cancer Connection

    The HIV/Cancer Connection

    The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV has a powerful effect on the immune system. While there is no cure, advances in treatment have improved the prognosis for people with HIV.

    Some types of cancer are much more common in people with HIV than in the general population. The virus makes it harder for the body to fight other infections and diseases. HIV doesn’t cause cancer, but it does increase the risk of developing cancer. Other cancers, called AIDS-defining cancers, signal the transition from HIV to AIDS.

  • An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Kaposi’s Sarcoma

    An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Kaposi’s Sarcoma

    According to the National Cancer Institute, people with HIV are several thousand times more likely to develop Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). KS is linked to a virus called human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8). This virus doesn’t usually cause cancer in healthy people. The virus can be spread through sexual contact. It’s also present in saliva, and can spread that way as well.

    Early on, symptoms aren’t always obvious. Some people develop dark skin or mouth lesions. Other symptoms include weight loss and fever. KS can affect the lymph nodes, digestive tract, and major organs. It sometimes can be fatal.

  • An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

    An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

    People with HIV are 70 times more likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), according to the National Cancer Institute. The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) causes some subtypes of NHL.

    NHL begins in lymphoid tissue and spreads to other organs. The incidence of NHL in HIV patients has decreased with the use of anti-HIV medications.

    There are many types of NHL. Primary central nervous system lymphoma is one that starts in the spinal cord or brain. Symptoms include confusion, fatigue, facial paralysis, and seizures.

    The prognosis depends on a variety of factors, including overall immune system function.

  • An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Invasive Cervical Cancer

    An AIDS-Defining Cancer: Invasive Cervical Cancer

    According to the National Cancer Institute, women with HIV are five times more likely to get cervical cancer than other women are. Cervical cancer has a strong link to the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus.

    Women with HIV are at elevated risk of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), a growth of precancerous cells in the cervix. There are usually no symptoms, but CIN can progress to cervical cancer. CIN is harder to treat in women with HIV.

    The prognosis for HIV-infected women with invasive cervical cancer depends on many factors, including overall immune function.

  • Other HIV-Related Cancers

    Other HIV-Related Cancers

    People with HIV are at greater risk of developing anal cancer, which is caused by HPV. HPV also increases risk of certain mouth and throat cancers in HIV patients. Among people with HIV, liver cancer is more likely in those who have also been infected with the hepatitis B or C viruses.

    HIV also increases the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma, lung cancer, and testicular cancer. However, HIV does not raise the risk of breast, prostate, or colorectal cancers.

  • Reducing Risk: Antiviral Therapy

    Reducing Risk: Antiviral Therapy

    Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has been in use since the mid-1990s. HAART reduces the amount of HIV that circulates within the blood, boosting the ability of the immune system to fight infection.

    The incidence of KS and NHL in HIV-infected people is decreasing among those who use HAART. It’s important to note, however, that people with HIV are still at much greater risk of developing KS and NHL than people in the general population.

    HAART has not been shown to lower risk of cervical cancer. HIV sometimes develops resistance to HAART.

  • Reducing Risk: Early Detection

    Reducing Risk: Early Detection

    Early detection and treatment can result in a more positive outlook for some types of cancer:

    • liver cancer: Get tested for hepatitis. If you’ve been infected, seek immediate treatment and ask your doctor if you should give up alcohol.
    • cervical cancer: Regular Pap tests can detect early abnormalities that can lead to cervical cancer.
    • anal cancer: An anal Pap test can detect anal cancer in its earliest stages.
    • lung cancer: Don’t smoke. This simple lifestyle change can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.

    Talk to your doctor to learn more about early detection for HIV-related cancers.

  • Treating HIV/AIDS-Related Cancers

    Treating HIV/AIDS-Related Cancers

    Treatment for HIV/AIDS-related cancer varies according to the type of cancer and stage at diagnosis. The patient’s overall health, immune system function, and personal preferences are taken into account.

    Generally, HIV/AIDS patients are treated with HAART. When possible, tumors are surgically removed. Other treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, and photodynamic therapy.

    Recurrent cancers and cancers that have spread (metastatic cancers) are difficult to treat. In some cases, palliative and/or hospice care take the place of aggressive treatment.