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Cancer

HIV doesn’t cause cancer, but it can increase your risk.

Having HIV disease can put you at risk for many types of opportunistic infections and other diseases—including certain types of cancer that are more common or more aggressive in people with HIV.

HIV-related cancers include certain types of immune-system cancers (lymphomas), Kaposi's sarcoma, and cancers that affect the anus and the cervix. You may also see these cancers referred to as “AIDS-related cancers.”

A low CD4 count appears to be the primary risk factor for many of these cancers. HPV infection is another major risk factor.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a specific type of cancer that involves the lymph nodes and the lymph system. If you have HIV and a low CD4 count, you are at risk for several types of lymphoma.

The most common HIV-related lymphoma is called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL). This type of cancer occurs most often in patients with an average CD4 count of 100 cells/mm3 or less. Patients with NHL can have a range of symptoms including:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, chest, underarm, or groin
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Fever

(Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms.)

It usually takes multiple tests to diagnose NHL, including blood tests, a biopsy, and imaging studies (MRI, CT scan, or PET scan). Treatment for this condition is complex and involves treating both the cancer and your HIV infection.

For more information, see the National Cancer Institute’s General Information About AIDS-Related Lymphoma.

Primary Central Nervous System (CNS) Lymphoma

Your central nervous system consists of your brain, spinal cord, and spinal nerves. This system controls all the workings of your body. HIV can infect and damage parts of it.

Primary CNS lymphoma is a type of cancer that typically occurs in people with CD4 counts less than 50 cells/mm3. This type of cancer affects the lymph system in your brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of this type of cancer can include:

  • Headache
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Other neurological changes

(Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms.)

Diagnosis includes many of the same types of tests as those for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—but because CNS lymphoma affects the brain directly, your healthcare provider may want to do a brain biopsy as well. Radiation therapy is the most common treatment for AIDS-related CNS lymphoma.

For more information, see the National Cancer Institute’s General Information About Primary CNS Lymphoma.

Kaposi’s Sarcoma

Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) is a cancer of the connective tissue that is caused by a strain of human herpesvirus (HHV-8). KS occurs most often in people with CD4 counts below 200-300/mm3. Before the AIDS epidemic, Kaposi's sarcoma was found mainly in elderly Italian and Jewish men, for whom it was a slow-growing and mild form of cancer.

For people living with HIV/AIDS, however, KS can develop very quickly. KS appears as purplish/reddish spots (called lesions) which generally develop first on the skin, or inside the mouth. Lesions can develop anywhere on the body—including on internal organs.

While KS is treatable with chemotherapy, the best way to combat it is to improve CD4 count by using antiretroviral therapy. For more information on Kaposi’s sarcoma please see the AIDS.gov page on Opportunistic Infections.

See also the National Cancer Institute’s Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

Anal Cancer

Anal cancer occurs when malignant cells form in the tissues of the anus. Anal cancer is rare in otherwise healthy people—but since the mid-1990s, the number of cases of anal cancer has increased dramatically and continues to rise.

Anal cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). If you have HPV and/or HIV disease, you have a much greater risk of developing anal cancer.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) are particularly at risk for developing anal cancer, whether or not they have HIV. But MSM who are HIV-positive are up to 40 times more likely to get anal cancer. For more information on anal cancer among MSM, see GMHC’s Treatment Issues: Anal cancer, HIV, and gay/bisexual men.

Symptoms of anal cancer can include:

  • Bleeding from the anus or rectum
  • Pain or pressure in the area around the anus
  • Itching or discharge from the anus
  • A lump near the anus
  • A change in bowel habits

(Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms.)

Some experts recommend that men who are at risk for anal cancer have an anal Pap test each year. CDC has not yet recommended this as the standard of care, but if you are at risk, you should talk with your healthcare provider about the potential benefits of getting an anal Pap test.

For more information on anal cancer, see the National Cancer Institute’s General Information About Anal Cancer.

Invasive Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms. HPV infection is the main cause of cervical cancer.

Invasive cervical cancer occurs when cancerous cells spread from the surface of the cervix to other parts of the body. Although any woman, regardless of her HIV status, may develop cervical cancer, there is an increased risk of developing cervical cancer if you are female and HIV-positive. Invasive cervical cancer is an AIDS-defining condition for women.

In its early stages (when it is most likely to respond to treatment), cervical cancer rarely has symptoms, but women with cervical cancer can experience:

  • Abnormal bleeding between periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

(Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms.)

Early detection is important to prevent invasive cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests are the key—these tests can show abnormal cell changes (cervical dysplasia) before they become cancerous. When cell changes are found and treated early, almost all women can avoid getting cervical cancer.

For more information, see the National Cancer Institute’s Understanding Cervical Changes.

An abnormal Pap test does NOT mean you have cervical cancer—but, if you have an abnormal or unclear result, you need to talk with your healthcare provider about follow-up tests and care.

If you do have cervical cancer, it is important to treat it early, before it becomes invasive. Treatment methods can include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

For the more information, see the National Cancer Institute’s What You Need to Know About Cervical Cancer: Treatment.

Additional Resources

Last revised: 06/01/2012