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HIV Raises Risk of Lung Cancer 70 Percent in Large U.S. Veterans Group

August 2012

Having HIV infection raised the risk of lung cancer 70% in a study of more than 110,000 U.S. veterans, even after researchers accounted for the impact of smoking.1 By itself, smoking boosted lung cancer risk more than 6 times. This large study offers perhaps the clearest estimate so far on how HIV infection affects lung cancer risk.

Lung cancer is the most deadly cancer among both men and women in the United States.2 In 2012, more than 226,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with lung cancer and 160,340 died.3 Although smoking is the major cause of lung cancer, this cancer can develop in people who never smoked.

Several previous studies found higher rates of newly diagnosed lung cancer in people with HIV than in the general population. But because of the size or design of these studies, they could not pin down reasons for the higher lung cancer rate in people with HIV.

HIV-positive people may run a higher risk of lung cancer because they tend to smoke more than people without HIV. The earlier studies either did not weigh the impact of smoking on lung cancer risk -- or those studies were limited by (1) how they estimated lung cancer rates, (2) lack of an HIV-negative comparison group, (3) small size, or (4) completion early in the current antiretroviral era, when many more people died of AIDS than they do now.

To address these study limitations, researchers working with the Veterans Aging Cohort Study Virtual Cohort (VACS-VC) conducted this study. The VACS-VC includes veterans with and without HIV. Information on past and current smoking is available for most people in this large study group.


How the Study Worked

U.S. veterans -- most of them men -- entered the VACS-VC study group from 1997 through 2008. All HIV-positive people in the study had free access to combination antiretroviral therapy, which came into wide use in 1996. For each HIV-positive person in the lung cancer study, researchers selected two HIV-negative veterans, matching them to HIV-positive people by age, gender, race or ethnicity, and Veterans Affairs healthcare site.

The researchers tracked all HIV-positive and negative people until lung cancer diagnosis, death, or the last recorded visit in the VACSVC study. Cases of lung cancer diagnosed after people joined the VACS-VC were identified in the Veterans Affairs Central Cancer Registry. All of these lung cancer cases were confirmed by lab testing.

The VACS-VC team also determined which study participants had other lung diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bacterial pneumonia. The researchers could classify about 80% of study participants as current smokers, former smokers, or people who never smoked.

The investigators used standard statistical methods to identify factors that raised the risk of lung cancer, regardless of any other lung cancer risk factors a person might have.

What the Study Found

The study included 37,294 HIV-positive veterans and 75,750 veterans without HIV. Researchers tracked these people for a median of 5.8 years to see if they were diagnosed with lung cancer.

Almost all study participants (98%) were men, 48% were black, 39% white, and 7% Hispanic. Median age of the study group was 46 years. The HIV-positive group included a higher proportion of current smokers than did the HIV-negative group (48% versus 46%), a lower proportion of former smokers (11% versus 15%), and a lower proportion of people who never smoked (20% versus 24%). Only 16% of HIV-positive people were taking combination antiretroviral therapy.

During the study period, 1071 veterans were diagnosed with lung cancer. There were 457 new lung cancer cases in the HIV-positive group and 614 in the twice-larger HIV-negative group. Lung cancer incidence (the new diagnosis rate) was much higher in the HIV-positive group than in the HIV-negative group: 204 versus 119 new lung cancers per 100,000 person-years.

Median age at lung cancer diagnosis was lower in the HIV-positive group (57 versus 59 years).

A comparison of HIV-positive veterans who did and did not get lung cancer revealed these differences:

To identify factors that raised the risk of lung cancer, the researchers performed a statistical analysis that considered the impact of several cancer risk factors: age, gender, race or ethnicity, smoking, and previous diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bacterial pneumonia. In this analysis, HIV infection raised the risk of new lung cancer 70% -- no matter what other cancer risk factors a person had (Figure 1). Current smokers had more than a 6 times higher risk of lung cancer, and former smokers had a 3 times higher risk. Figure 1 shows all the independent lung cancer risk factors.

Factors That Raised the Risk of Lung Cancer

Figure 1. HIV infection -- by itself -- raised the risk of lung cancer 1.7 times (70%) in U.S. veterans. Current smoking and former smoking had an even bigger impact on lung cancer risk. COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; y, year.

Figure 1. HIV infection -- by itself -- raised the risk of lung cancer 1.7 times (70%) in U.S. veterans. Current smoking and former smoking had an even bigger impact on lung cancer risk. COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; y, year.

A separate analysis figured that HIV infection raised the risk of lung cancer 50% in current smokers, 70% in former smokers, and 60% in people who never smoked. These findings confirm that HIV itself boosts the risk of lung cancer regardless of whether a person used to smoke, smokes now, or never smoked.

Finally, the researchers found that most lung cancers in people with HIV and people without HIV got diagnosed at a late stage. Late-stage cancers are the hardest to treat and therefore pose the highest risk of death.

What the Results Mean for You

This large, wellplanned study produced convincing evidence that people with HIV infection run a higher risk of lung cancer than people without HIV infection. This finding held true regardless of whether an HIV-positive person smoked at the time of the study, had stopped smoking, or never smoked.

At the same time, the study confirmed the huge impact smoking has on lung cancer risk: People who used to smoke had a 3 times higher risk of lung cancer than people who never smoked. And people who smoked during the study period had a 6 times higher risk of lung cancer than people who never smoked. So the lung cancer risk was lower in former smokers than current smokers. Smoking causes or contributes to several other deadly diseases, including other cancers and heart disease. If you smoke, you should talk to your healthcare provider about finding ways to stop. See the box "How to quit smoking."

The study also found that people who have already had a lung disease have a higher risk of lung cancer. Men had a higher risk of lung cancer in this mostly male study group, but that does not mean women don't have to worry about lung cancer. In the United States more people die of lung cancer every year than die of breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer combined.2

Besides smokers, people with a high risk of lung cancer include (1) people who have already had lung cancer, (2) people whose immediate family members have had lung cancer, (3) people exposed to high levels of air pollution, and (4) people exposed to asbestos (Figure 2), radon gas, arsenic, or radiation therapy to the lungs.2

Exposure to Asbestos

Figure 2. Exposure to asbestos, shown here magnified 1500 times, can cause lung cancer. But cigarette smoking (inset) is by far the main cause of lung cancer. (From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library [PHIL]; asbestos photo, John Wheeler, PhD, DABT; cigarette photo, Debora Cartagena.)

The veterans study found that most people in whom lung cancer developed during the study had advanced lung cancer. That finding probably means that veterans' healthcare providers did not find lung cancer more often in people with HIV than without HIV because they were looking harder in people with HIV.

The researchers who conducted this study warn that, "as HIV-infected patients are aging on effective combination antiretroviral, lung cancer may become an increasingly common and often fatal diagnosis." Everyone can take steps to lower their risk of lung cancer, as explained above and in the online information linked below at references 2, 3, and 4.

How to Quit Smoking: Advice From the National Cancer Institute4
  • Ask your healthcare provider about medicine or nicotine replacement therapy, such as a patch, gum, lozenge, nasal spray, or inhaler. Your provider can suggest a number of treatments that help people quit.
  • Ask your provider to help you find local programs or trained professionals who help people stop using tobacco.
  • Call staff at the National Cancer Institute's Smoking Quitline (1-877-44U-QUIT) or instant message them through LiveHelp. They can tell you about:
    • Ways to quit smoking
    • Groups that help smokers who want to quit
    • National Cancer Institute publications about quitting smoking
    • How to take part in a study of methods to help smokers quit
  • Go online to, a Federal Government Web site. It offers a guide to quitting smoking and a list of other resources.


  1. Sigel K, Wisnivesky J, Gordon K, et al. HIV as an independent risk factor for incident lung cancer. AIDS. 2012;26:1017-1025.
  2. PubMed Health. Lung cancer. August 24, 2011.
  3. National Cancer Institute. Lung cancer.
  4. National Cancer Institute. What you need to know about lung cancer.

This article was provided by The Center for AIDS Information & Advocacy. It is a part of the publication HIV Treatment ALERTS!. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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