It is estimated that there are more than a million people in the U.S. infected with HIV. In 2009 alone, there were roughly 50 thousand new HIV cases. There are approximately 16-18 thousand AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. each year. Although medical advancements have enabled many HIV/AIDS patients to live a relatively normal life, the truth is that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been and continues to be a public health disaster of astronomic proportions.
As if life with HIV/AIDS is not difficult enough, researchers have also found that HIV/AIDS patients are also more prone to developing various malignancies when compared with the non-infected population. In fact, cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality in the HIV/AIDS population. It is estimated that 30%-40% of HIV patients will develop some type of cancer during their life time.
The types of cancer that affect HIV patients can be generally divided into two groups: AIDS defining cancers and opportunistic cancers. An HIV positive patient who develops a cancer defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as AIDS defining is considered to have AIDS. These AIDS defining cancers include: Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and invasive cervical cancer. Other cancers are generally categorized as opportunistic.
Researchers have found that HIV/AIDS patients have a 2-to-3 fold increase in the overall risk of developing opportunistic cancers. Not only are HIV/AIDS patients more likely to develop cancer but the cancer prognosis is worse when compared with that of non-infected patients. HIV/AIDS patients also present with more advanced cancers at the time of diagnosis and, on average, they develop cancers at a younger age.
So, why is the risk for developing cancer higher in the HIV/AIDS population? It remains unclear whether the actual virus has a direct impact on the development of malignancies. It is believed, however, that the increased incidence of cancer is due to the fact that HIV/AIDS patients have a compromised immune system, which can lead to an impaired ability to produce antibodies or inflammatory responses.
Needless to say, if you are an HIV/AIDS patient or you know someone who is, please be aware of the increased risk for developing cancer. Be proactive and pursue proper and timely cancer screening. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, don’t automatically attribute them to having HIV/AIDS (e.g., unusual fatigue). Unfortunately, they might just be symptoms of cancer.