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.
About HIV/AIDS-related cancer
People with HIV/AIDS have an increased risk of developing the following cancers:
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)
- Cervical cancer
For people with HIV, these 3 cancers are often called “AIDS-defining conditions.” This means that if a person with an HIV infection has 1 of these cancers, it can mean that AIDS has developed.
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 healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. The types of cancer most common for people with HIV/AIDS are described in more detail below.
Kaposi sarcoma is a type of soft-tissue sarcoma that has traditionally occurred in older men of Jewish or Mediterranean descent, young men in Africa, or people who have had organ transplantation. Today, Kaposi sarcoma is most commonly found in people with HIV/AIDS and is related to an infection with the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8). Kaposi sarcoma in people with HIV is also called epidemic Kaposi sarcoma.
HIV/AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma causes lesions to arise in more than 1 area of the body, including the skin, lymph nodes, and organs such as the liver, spleen, lungs, and digestive tract. Learn more about Kaposi sarcoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Lymphoma begins when healthy cells in the lymphatic system change and grow out of control, which may form a tumor. The lymphatic system is made up of thin tubes that branch to all parts of the body. Its job is to fight infection. The lymphatic system carries lymph, a colorless fluid containing white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes fight germs in the body. Groups of small, bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes are located throughout the body at different sites in the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are found in clusters in the abdomen, groin, pelvis, underarms, and neck. Other parts of the lymphatic system include the spleen, which makes lymphocytes and filters blood; the thymus, an organ under the breastbone; the tonsils, located in the throat; and bone marrow, the spongy red tissue inside bones that makes blood cells and platelets.
There are many different subtypes of NHL. The most common NHL subtypes in people with advanced HIV/AIDS include:
- Aggressive B-cell lymphomas, most commonly the diffuse large B-cell or Burkitt subtypes
- Primary central nervous system lymphoma, which affects the brain
- Primary effusion lymphoma, which causes fluid to build up around the lungs or heart or in the abdomen
Recently, doctors have found that even people with well-controlled HIV/AIDS can develop NHL. Learn more about NHL.
Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, which is 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.
People with HIV/AIDS have a higher risk of developing abnormal cells in the cervix that can become cancer. This is called cervical dysplasia. Learn more about cervical cancer.
Other types of cancer
Less commonly, people with HIV/AIDS may develop the following cancers:
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Angiosarcoma, which begins in the lining of the blood vessels
- Anal cancer
- Liver cancer
- Mouth cancer and throat cancer
- Lung cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Penile cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
The rest of this guide focuses on Kaposi sarcoma, NHL, and cervical cancer in people with HIV/AIDS.