Definition and Overview

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is a serious infection that compromises the immune system. Once it begins to cause symptoms, it has the potential to result in a serious life-threatening disease called AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

HIV patients, due to their compromised immune system, face a high risk of developing other serious diseases, including cancer, particularly when AIDS is already in the developing stage.

The most common and specific HIV-related cancers include non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cervical cancer, and Kaposi sarcoma. HIV patients are also at risk of cancers affecting the liver, mouth, throat, lungs, testicles, penis, colon/rectum, and the skin.

Causes of Condition

Different types of HIV-related cancers have varying risk factors, but the main and common cause is believed to be the weakened immune systems of HIV/AIDS patients. The compromised immune system loses the ability to fight the abnormal change and growth of previously healthy cells, allowing them to proliferate and form a mass or tumor. If a tumor or mass is malignant, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious infection.

  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma - Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is made up of the spleen, thymus, the tonsils, and lymph nodes, plays a crucial role in protecting the body from infections by transmitting white blood cells or lymphocytes all throughout the body.

  • Cervical Cancer – This type of cancer affects the cervix, a female organ located at the lower part of the uterus. The cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina, makes up part of the birth canal through which a fetus passes during childbirth. Cervical cancer is associated with HPV or human papillomavirus infection, which can cause the growth of pre-cancerous cells.

  • Kaposi Sarcoma - Kaposi sarcoma is a specific form of skin cancer caused by the human herpesvirus 8 or HHV-8. It most commonly occurs among men of African, Jewish, or Mediterranean descent, as well as homosexual men with an HIV infection or AIDS. People who have undergone organ transplantation also face an increased risk of developing this disease.

Key Symptoms

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) can affect specific parts of the body causing varying symptoms. In most cases of HIV-related lymphoma, the cancer affects the primary central nervous system, specifically affecting the spinal fluid and brain. However, some cases of NHL may also affect the lungs or the abdomen, causing abnormal fluid buildup in the affected organ. NHL can be detected when the patient experiences the following symptoms:

  • Swollen but painless lymph nodes in neck, armpits, or groin
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Cancer of the cervix, on the other hand, is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Watery, foul-smelling, or bloody vaginal discharge
  • Pain in the back or pelvic area
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Leg inflammation
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Bowel movement problems

Kaposi sarcoma is associated with the presence of lesions throughout the body. The lesions are most commonly found in the skin, lymph nodes, and even in organs such as the liver, lungs, and spleen. These lesions are also accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal blockage
  • Internal bleeding
  • Severe facial swelling
  • Severe inflammation of the arms, legs, or scrotum
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe coughing
  • Difficulty swallowing

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Patients suffering from HIV-related cancers should be treated by an oncologist, a medical professional specializing in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of cancer.

The treatment for this condition requires some special considerations as patients have a compromised immune system.

The goals of treatment are to:

  • Relieve symptoms and side effects
  • Stop or slow the growth of the cancer
  • Treat the HIV infection

Throughout the course of treatment, an HIV-infected person must continue with his or her antiviral treatment, in the form of HAART or highly active antiretroviral treatment, which controls the human immunodeficiency virus. The treatment for HIV is considered more important as it can also effectively help treat the cancer. Thus, it is usually done first before the treatment for cancer and should be, through the entire treatment stage, coordinated with cancer treatment to avoid harmful drug interactions and side effects.

Cancer treatments mainly include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy (usually with alpha-interferon)
  • Targeted therapy (usually with rituximab)

Surgery is usually the initial course of treatment for the removal of malignant tumors. This is done using different surgical techniques depending on the tumor's size and location. These include:

  • Cryosurgery
  • Curettage and electrodesiccation

  • National Cancer Institute: "General Information About AIDS-Related Lymphoma."

  • National Cancer Institute: "General Information About Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma."
  • Lymphoma Foundation Canada: "HIV & Lymphoma."
  • American Cancer Society: "Detailed Guide: Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin's Type Chemotherapy."
  • American Cancer Society: "Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma."
  • News release, Gilead Sciences.
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