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HIV and AIDS-Related Cancer

Overview

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a disease of the immune system caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV is transmitted from person to person most commonly in blood and bodily secretions (such as semen). A person with HIV is highly vulnerable to life-threatening conditions, because HIV severely weakens the body’s immune system. When HIV infection causes symptoms and specific disease syndromes, the disease is called AIDS.

People with HIV/AIDS are at high risk for developing certain cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cervical cancer (see below). For people with HIV, these three cancers are often called “AIDS-defining conditions,” meaning that if a person with HIV has one of these cancers it can signify the development of AIDS.

The connection between HIV/AIDS and certain cancers is not completely understood, but the link likely depends on a weakened immune system. Most types of cancer begin when normal cells begin to change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). The types of cancer most common for people with HIV/AIDS are described in more detail below.

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Kaposi’s sarcoma

Kaposi’s sarcoma is a type of skin cancer, which has traditionally occurred in older men of Jewish or Mediterranean descent, young men in Africa, or people who have received organ transplantation. Today, Kaposi’s sarcoma is found most often in homosexual men with HIV/AIDS and related to an infection with the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8). Kaposi’s sarcoma in people with HIV is often called epidemic Kaposi’s sarcoma.
HIV/AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma causes lesions to arise in multiple sites in the body, including the skin, lymph nodes, and organs such as the liver, spleen, lungs, and digestive tract.

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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer of the lymph system. Lymphoma begins when cells in the lymph system change and grow uncontrollably, which may form a tumor. The lymph system is made up of thin tubes that branch to all parts of the body. Its job is to fight infection and disease. The lymph system carries lymph, a colorless fluid containing white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes fight germs in the body. Groups of tiny, bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes are located throughout the body at different sites in the lymph system. Lymph nodes are found in clusters in the abdomen, groin, pelvis, underarms, and neck. Other parts of the lymph system include the spleen, which makes lymphocytes and filters blood; the thymus, an organ under the breastbone; and the tonsils, located in the throat.

HIV/AIDS-related NHL is the second most common cancer associated with HIV/AIDS, after Kaposi’s sarcoma. There are many different subtypes of NHL. The most common subtypes of NHL in people with HIV/AIDS are primary central nervous system lymphoma (affecting the brain and spinal fluid), found in 20% of all NHL cases in people with HIV/AIDS, primary effusion lymphoma (causing fluid to accumulate around the lungs or in the abdomen), or intermediate and high-grade lymphoma. More than 80% of lymphomas in people with HIV/AIDS are high-grade B-cell lymphoma, while 10% to 15% of lymphomas among people with cancer who do not have HIV/AIDS are of this type. It is estimated that between 4% and 10% of people with HIV/AIDS develop NHL. Learn more about non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


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Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer starts in a woman's cervix, the lower, narrow part of the uterus. The uterus holds the growing fetus during pregnancy. The cervix connects the lower part of the uterus to the vagina and, with the vagina, forms the birth canal. Cervical cancer is also called cancer of the cervix.
Women with HIV/AIDS have a higher risk of developing cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), a precancerous growth of cells in the cervix. CIN occurs in 11% to 29% of women with HIV/AIDS, and may be associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. High-grade CIN can turn into invasive cervical cancer, and women with AIDS are at higher risk for developing this type of cancer. Learn more about cervical cancer.

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