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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on May 21, 2021.

HIV/AIDS-related cancers

The human immunodeficiency virus, commonly called HIV, is a condition that affects the body’s ability to ward off infections. Over time, especially without treatment, the virus may lead to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

AIDS is defined clinically two ways—by the number of immune cells decreasing below a specific threshold or by the diagnosis of certain other conditions. Those conditions include three types of cancer that are most likely to be seen in people with HIV, sometimes called AIDS-defining cancers. These cancers are:

In the early days of the HIV epidemic, some of the first signs of the existence of the virus were incidences of these rare cancers, such as Kaposi sarcoma, in an increasing number of patients. Since then, treatment for HIV has come a long way, with antiretroviral medicine now available to keep people healthy long after diagnosis. Still, HIV/AIDS-related cancers pose some increased risk to people with HIV—especially among those without access to modern combination antiretroviral treatments (cART), also called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), or among those who don’t know they have HIV.

AIDS-defining cancers

AIDS-defining cancers are types of cancer that, once a patient with HIV is diagnosed, qualifies the patient as having AIDS. These cancers may develop as a result of secondary infections that the immune system is typically capable of warding off in otherwise healthy people whose immune systems are not weakened by HIV.

Kaposi sarcoma: Kaposi sarcoma is caused by an infection that is common in many parts of the world called Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV). Kaposi sarcoma causes lesions that frequently appear dark violet on the skin (depending on the skin tone of the patient). Lesions may also appear on the lymph nodes, mucus membranes and internal organs. As Kaposi sarcoma spreads, it may become fatal if it infects the lungs or colon.

Certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma: Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system. Symptoms of this particular type of lymphoma typically include fever, enlarged lymph nodes, night sweats and a feeling of fullness beneath the ribs.

Cervical cancer: Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). While HPV is extremely common, and not all types of HPV cause cancer, women with HIV are three times more likely than women without HIV to develop cervical cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Cervical cancer is typically diagnosed as a result of a pelvic exam and other testing.

HIV-associated cancers

Other than AIDS-defining cancers, there are a few other types of cancer that HIV patients may be more likely to develop. They include Hodgkin lymphoma and cancers of the anus, mouth, throat, liver, lung and skin. Like AIDS-defining cancers, these are thought to be linked to viruses that the immune system is not as equipped to control in people with HIV.

Rates of some cancers, such as liver and anal cancer, may be increasing in people living with HIV, according to the NCI, due to the fact that they are now living longer. As treatment has improved in the past few decades, more people living with HIV are now in the age ranges where these cancers tend to develop in the general population. In fact, the group of people living with HIV that’s growing the fastest is people older than 40.

Cancer prevention for people living with HIV

Treatment with antiretroviral therapy is the most appropriate way to prevent HIV/AIDS-related cancers. Besides taking daily HIV medication, there are additional steps that may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

Use condoms during sex: You may reduce exposure to HPV, and thus HPV-related cancers (such as cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancers), by using condoms during vaginal, anal and oral sex.

Get cancer screenings: Regular screening for cervical cancer through Pap and HPV testing is also an important part of preventing cervical cancer or catching it early. Researchers are also studying whether anal Pap tests should be recommended in certain cases.

Depending on age, consider the HPV vaccine: The HPV vaccine is recommended for people age 26 and younger. In some cases, depending on a person’s risk, doctors may recommend it even if they’re older than 26—but it may provide less protection against the virus.

Quit using tobacco: People with HIV are more at risk for lung cancer than other groups. Quitting smoking is key for anyone trying to reduce their risk of cancer, but it may be even more important for HIV patients.

Get screened for hepatitis: Two groups are more likely to develop liver cancer—people living with HIV and people who have hepatitis B or C infections. About a third of people with HIV also have hepatitis B or C, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If you have HIV, it’s especially important to get tested for hepatitis. Talk with your doctor about the next steps.

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