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People who have AIDS are much more likely to get certain types of cancer than people without the disease. When people who have HIV develop certain cancers, doctors consider their HIV infection to have progressed to AIDS. These types of cancer include Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as Hodgkin lymphoma.
People with HIV or AIDS are also often more likely to develop cancer in places such as the cervix, anus, lung, and liver.
Facts about AIDS-related malignancies
Kaposi’s sarcoma is a rare cancer among people who don’t have HIV. In fact, HIV infection increases the risk of Kaposi’s sarcoma by about 800 times compared with those who do not have HIV. People with HIV infection are at least seven times more likely to develop lymphoma, nine times more likely to develop anal cancer, three times more likely to develop cervical cancer, and at least three times more likely to develop lung or liver cancer than people who do not have HIV/AIDS.
Although AIDS is associated with an increased risk for several types of cancer, certain AIDS-related cancers have become less common. This may be because of the wider use of antiretroviral, or anti-HIV medications, which combat the virus that causes AIDS.
When a person becomes infected with HIV, the immune system doesn't work as well. As a result, cancers may develop more quickly and become harder to treat, since the immune system usually helps fight cancerous cells before they turn into tumors. People who are taking anti-HIV drugs—medications that help boost the immune system—may be better able to benefit from anti-cancer treatments.
Different types of AIDS-related cancers cause different symptoms. These may include:
Kaposi’s sarcoma. A visible symptom of this cancer is purple or brown spots on the skin or inside the mouth. The disease can affect internal organs and tissues, including the lungs, digestive tract, and lymph nodes. It can also cause fever, diarrhea, and weight loss.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Symptoms are fever; unexplained weight loss; sweating at night; swollen lymph nodes in the underarms, groin, and neck; and a sense of fullness in the chest. Other symptoms can include memory loss, seizures, and fatigue.
Cervical cancer. This may not cause symptoms, especially early in its growth. Eventually, however, cervical cancer may cause abnormal vaginal bleeding, discomfort during sex, and an unusual vaginal discharge.
Anal cancer. Symptoms may include pain in the anal area, bleeding, itching, a change in bowel habits, or a lump in the area.
Lung cancer. Symptoms include severe coughing, which may bring up blood; chest pain; trouble breathing; fatigue; and weight loss.
To diagnose Kaposi’s sarcoma, a doctor may do a physical examination and remove a sample of tissue to inspect under a microscope. You may also need a chest X-ray to see if the disease has affected your lungs. A doctor may also need to inspect your lungs directly using a small scope to take pictures and tissue samples. Kaposi’s sarcoma can also affect the digestive system, so an endoscopy and/or colonoscopy may also be necessary to examine the upper and lower digestive tract.
Likewise, a number of tests may be needed to diagnose AIDS-related lymphoma. These include CT or MRI scans, which create images of the inside of your body. The doctor may also perform a physical exam to see how well your brain and nervous system are working. The doctor may do a lumbar puncture to check the fluid in your spinal cord for cancer, as well.
A doctor may find early cervical cancer, or cells that could become cancerous, during a Pap test. A doctor may do a physical exam and a digital rectal examination to check for anal cancer. Other ways to diagnose this disease include inspecting the area with a special scope or removing cells to examine under the microscope.
To diagnose lung cancer, a doctor may obtain images of your lungs with an X-ray, or CT or MRI scan. Blood tests may also be helpful. The doctor may analyze mucus, fluid, or tissue from your lung.
Doctors may treat Kaposi’s sarcoma with anti-HIV drugs. Other treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Treatment for AIDS-related lymphoma may include the use of anti-HIV drugs, chemotherapy, and radiation. Treatment for cervical cancer often begins with a small procedure to remove the cancer. In some cases, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery to remove the uterus and other tissues may be necessary as well. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are also used to treat anal and lung cancers.
Preventing infection from HIV will prevent AIDS-related malignancies. Important steps include:
Not sharing needles or syringes with other people
Avoiding unprotected sex
Not sharing toothbrushes or razors with other people
Not coming into contact with other people's blood
Getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases on a regular basis
Other steps can help prevent some other types of AIDS-related cancers:
Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke to lower your risk for lung cancer
Limiting your sex partners, using condoms, and not smoking to lower the risk for cervical cancer. Having regular checkups can allow your doctor to find abnormal cells before they develop cancer. Being vaccinated against the HPV virus can also reduce the risk.
Limiting sex partners, using condoms, and not smoking to reduce the risk for anal cancer
Managing this condition
If you have an AIDS-related cancer, your doctor may recommend steps you can take on your own to reduce your symptoms. Be sure to discuss the different therapies that are available for AIDS-related cancer with your doctor, as well, since many treatment options do exist.