Being Well

HIV and AIDS-Related Cancer: Is There a Connection?

If you or a loved one is living with HIV or AIDS, does that you're more likely to get an AIDS-related cancer? Here's what you need to know.

You know that HIV weakens the immune system. But if you or a loved one is living with HIV/AIDS, are you more likely to develop AIDS-related cancer?

No one is immune to cancer. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, most cancers aren’t more (or less) common in people infected with HIV than those who aren’t. However, a weakened immune system means that those with HIV are at greater risk for infections and illness, including cancer.

AIDS-Defining Cancers

People living with HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to certain types of cancers. In particular, three cancers are considered “AIDS-defining” in HIV-infected individuals. That means if someone with HIV develops one of these cancers, it’s a sign that the infection has progressed to AIDS. This includes:

  • Kaposi sarcoma: This is a cancer of the lining of the blood vessels or lymph nodes, characterized by dark purple or brown spots on the skin or mouth. It’s linked to the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8).
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: This is a cancer in the lymphatic system that can spread to other systems in the body. AIDS-related non-Hodgkin lymphoma include primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and Burkitt lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
  • Invasive cervical cancer: This is a cancer that forms in cervical tissue and grows into the deep layers of the cervix. It’s linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV).

In addition, people with HIV have a higher risk of developing anal, liver and lung cancers, as well as Hodgkin lymphoma, according to NCI.

As treatment has improved, the incidence of AIDS-related cancers has decreased. Plus, with better treatment, people with HIV/AIDS live longer, meaning they can now complete a full cancer treatment protocol, improving survival rates. On the other hand, living longer also means they may also develop other cancers that are common in an older population.

Risk Factors

There are three viruses linked to increased risk of AIDS-related cancer for those with HIV:

  • HPV, associated with cervical cancer
  • HHV-8, associated with Kaposi sarcoma
  • Epstein Barr virus, associated with CNS lymphoma

While these viruses may lead to cancer in anyone, there’s a higher risk in people living with HIV. Other risk factors are similar to those of the general population and are related to behaviors such as smoking and tobacco use.

What You Can Do

You don’t have to sit around, wondering if you’ll develop cancer. There are many ways you can take cancer prevention into your own hands:

  • Stay on your medication. Antiretroviral treatment can help control HIV, which may reduce the risk of getting AIDS-related cancer and improve your chances of recovery, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • Get screened. In particular, women with HIV should get regular Pap smears, which may detect early signs of cervical cancer or changes in the cervix that could lead to cancer. Also stick with other tests, such as screenings for breast and colorectal cancers.
  • Avoid risky behaviors. Quitting smoking, avoiding the use of drugs and limiting alcohol may lower your overall risk of cancer. Practicing safe sex can help, too.
  • Stay healthy. Stick with a healthy diet rich in plant-based food and get regular physical activity. These practices can help keep your immune system to fight any infection that may take hold.

Doctors are continuing to learn more about the relationship between HIV, AIDS and cancer. If you’re concerned about your risk of developing AIDS-related cancer, talk to you doctor.

UVA can help you manage your conditions and get you the necessary screenings to prevent AIDS-related cancer.

Learn More
Christine Yu