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April 2013

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What Is Cancer?

Cancer refers to the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of certain cells that can get in the way of normal body functions. Cancer can spread (metastasize) from where it starts growing to other organs and parts of the body. Cancer can destroy healthy cells and cause illness and death.

A healthy immune system helps to prevent cancer. Because those living with HIV (HIV+) have weakened immune systems, it is easier for HIV+ people to become ill with several kinds of cancer. HIV+ people are more likely to be infected with viruses that can lead to cancer. These viruses include:

The following types of cancer lead to an AIDS diagnosis: Kaposi's sarcoma, certain types of lymphoma, and cervical cancer. Other non-AIDS defining cancers for which HIV+ people are at increased risk include anal, liver, and lung cancer. All of these are explained in detail below.

Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS)


KS was one of the most common opportunistic infections (OIs) in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

HHV-8 is the virus that causes KS. It is transmitted through sexual contact or blood products. KS has always been less common in women than in men, but is less common in all people with HIV since the use of newer, more effective HIV drug combinations.

A recent study found that some HIV+ people with KS find that their KS gets worse after starting HIV drugs. This is most likely due to IRIS (immune reconstitution inflammation syndrome), which happens when your immune system acts so strongly and so quickly that it causes lots of inflammation that can actually make your symptoms worse. KS-IRIS usually happens more often in HIV+ people with higher HIV viral loads, higher KS viral loads, and more advanced KS disease.

KS on the skin is not life threatening. However, if KS spreads to other parts of the body, especially the lungs, it can cause serious problems. An oncologist (a doctor who specializes in cancer) usually suggests treatment options based on factors such as the size, number, and location of KS tumors. However, the first treatment for KS is to begin HIV drugs. Your HIV provider and other specialists (e.g., radiation oncologist, dermatologist) may be involved as well.

Symptoms (by Location)

Skin (most common site of KS):

Oral cavity (inside the mouth):

Gastrointestinal tract tumors:

Lung tumors:




Lymphoma involves the uncontrolled growth of lymph cells that may spread to other organs, including bone marrow, the brain or spinal cord (central nervous system, or CNS lymphoma), and the gastrointestinal tract (GI lymphoma). The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may play a role in the development of lymphomas.

The two major types are:

Lymphomas can be more advanced and harder to treat in HIV+ people, especially CNS lymphoma.




Cervical Cancer


Cervical cancer is strongly linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the US. Different strains of HPV cause warts or abnormal cell growth (dysplasia) near the anus or cervix (entrance to the womb).

Dysplasia is more common in women with advanced HIV disease and low CD4 cell counts. It is often more severe and difficult to treat than in HIV-negative women. Untreated dysplasia can lead to cervical cancer, which can be life threatening. HPV may also cause cancer in the vagina, vulva, and anus.

The good news is, when dysplasia is found and treated early, cervical cancer can be prevented. A Pap smear is the test used to look for changes in the cervix, including dysplasia and cervical cancer. Cervical cancer usually takes years to develop, and it does not usually have symptoms until it is quite advanced. This is why getting screened for cervical cancer on a regular basis is important; screening can catch potential problems before they get worse. For more information on getting a gynecologic exam and Pap smear, see our information sheet on Caring for a Woman's Body."


The other good news is that there are two US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved HPV vaccines: Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil is approved for females and males ages nine to 26. Cervarix is approved for females ages ten to 25. Pregnant women should not use the vaccines. Both vaccines protect against types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts.



Pap smears


Treatment for Dysplasia or Cancer That Is Very Localized

Treatment for Cervical Cancer

Treatment depends on the type of cervical cancer and how far it has spread. Often, more than one kind of treatment is used.

Anal Cancer

Anal cancer is on the rise, in men as well as women. It is also tied to specific strains of HPV. An anal Pap smear and physical examination are the best ways to detect anal dysplasia. It is important to ask your health care provider to perform these tests on a regular basis. Because some of the same strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer can cause anal cancer, getting vaccinated with one of the two FDA-approved HPV vaccines can help to prevent anal cancer, too.



Treatment for Dysplasia or Cancer That Is Very Localized

Treatment for Anal Cancer

Liver Cancer

The increased risk for liver cancer among HIV+ people is strongly linked to infection with the hepatitis B and/or hepatitis Cviruses (HBV and HCV, respectively). Researchers have also shown a direct link between having a low CD4 cell count and having an increased risk for liver cancer. Other factors involved in damaging the liver include opportunistic infections (e.g., Mycobacterium avium complex, tuberculosis, cytomegalovirus, and cryptosporidium), excessive alcohol and recreational drug use, and even some HIV drugs.




Depending on the size, type, and location of the liver cancer, your provider will suggest treatment, which may include:

Lung Cancer


Although lung cancer is not an AIDS-defining cancer, people living with HIV have a greater chance of developing lung cancer than HIV-negative people. This difference is likely due to the weakened immune systems of those living with HIV. Unfortunately, lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. In the US, it is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among both women and men.

An increased risk of developing lung cancer is also strongly tied to smoking. Both the duration (how long) and amount (how much or how many per day) of smoking contribute to the risk for lung cancer. Second-hand smoke exposure (breathing smoke in the environment) also contributes to an increased risk for lung cancer. The best way to prevent lung cancer is to avoid or stop smoking. For more information, see our Smoking and HIV info sheet.




Depending on the size, type, and location of the lung cancer, cancer specialists will recommend some combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.


Cancers can be very serious for HIV+ people. On-going medical care allows for early diagnosis and treatment, or even prevention, in the case of cervical and anal cancers.

Seeing your health care provider on a regular basis and taking your HIV drugs regularly can help keep your immune system strong and your CD4 cell counts up. This also helps fight off cancers.

This article was provided by The Well Project. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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