From HIV to AIDS-Related Cancers: What You Need to Know

Living with HIV and AIDS can be overwhelming. Upon receiving a positive diagnosis, many may feel as though their life has come to a screeching halt, and they have no choice but to face a lifelong sentence.

The stigma and fears surrounding HIV and AIDS can make it difficult for people to seek the help and support they need. Furthermore, the ongoing physical and emotional challenges can take a toll on both the individual and their loved ones. Complicating matters further, cancer can arise alongside HIV and AIDS, weakening an already compromised immune system. In addition to the challenges of having a lifelong disease, living with cancer makes it more difficult for the body to fight infections and other illnesses.

However, with the right treatment and support, it is possible to live a full and meaningful life with HIV/AIDS and cancer. This article explores the ups and downs that come with having both, the cancer types most associated with HIV and AIDS, and how one can find new hope and healing on this journey.


HIV vs. AIDS: Different Conditions, Different Implications

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infectious disease that disrupts the immune system. It leaves the infected individual vulnerable to various ailments – from the common cold to the novel coronavirus – as their immune system weakens. People can transmit HIV through anal and vaginal sex or by sharing syringes and needles. Human-to-human transmission through saliva (kissing) is also possible in theory, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

When an individual leaves HIV untreated, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is an umbrella term for a number of potentially life-threatening diseases that arise when the HIV virus has wreaked havoc on the immune system. WHO adds that the time between HIV transmission and AIDS development is 10-15 years, sometimes longer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for AIDS include:

  • Under 200 CD4+ T cells per cubic millimeter of blood, in comparison with approximately 1,000 CD4+ T cells among healthy individuals.
  • CD4+ T cells that account for under 14 percent of all lymphocytes.

To explain simply, CD4+ or CD4 T cells are white blood cells responsible for fighting infections and foreign invaders in the body. The HIV virus “hunts down” these white blood cells, relentlessly binding to the primary cellular receptor CD4+ and making copies of itself. Then, HIV destroys the cell, and the new HIV copies hunt down other CD4+ to invade, therefore, restarting the cycle.

HIV/AIDS has been a global epidemic since 1981. Recent data from WHO suggest that as of 2021, 40.1 million people have died from the disease. Although HIV and AIDS are incurable, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help those infected lead longer, healthier lives.


HIV, AIDS, and Cancer Risk

Antiretroviral therapy, which involves taking a combination of different HIV medications, reduced HIV-related mortalities worldwide during its introduction in 1987. However, ART had unexpected repercussions. As years went by, researchers found that HIV, AIDS, and/or long-term use of antiretroviral therapy may cause several complications and comorbidities, including an increased risk of cancer.


Types of AIDS-Defining Cancers

AIDS-defining cancers are malignancies that occur more frequently in people with a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS. These cancers are called “AIDS-defining” because their presence in a person with HIV or AIDS is a strong indication that the immune system is severely damaged.

The most common types of AIDS-defining cancers are:

While these cancers can affect anyone, including those with risk factors, they can present more aggressive symptoms in people with HIV/AIDS, necessitating specialized treatment to manage one’s health. Those with HIV/AIDS should prioritize regular cancer screenings and work closely with a healthcare team to monitor their overall well-being.


Types of Non-AIDS-Defining Cancers

Non-AIDS-defining cancers are malignancies that emerge at similar rates in individuals with or without HIV/AIDS. However, these can cause more severe and aggressive symptoms in people living with HIV/AIDS due to their compromised immune systems.

Some of the most common types of non-AIDS-defining cancers include:

A person with HIV is up to eight times more likely to develop Hodgkin lymphoma than someone without HIV. Those with HIV/AIDS have an increased risk of developing these cancers, as well as other ailments, due to HIV/AIDS continuing to invade white blood cells and leaving the body defenseless against infections. As mentioned, it’s crucial for anyone living with these diseases to maintain routine checkups with a healthcare provider to manage their health and well-being.


How to Find New Hope and Healing

Though living with HIV/AIDS and cancer can cause physical, emotional, social struggles, staying positive and hopeful is possible. Here are some ways for someone with both diagnoses to strengthen their mind and body on this journey:

  • Look for self-help groups: Joining a support group can provide a sense of community and understanding for AIDS and cancer patients. People experiencing similar struggles can offer emotional support, information, and practical advice that may help improve quality of life, and reduce anxiety and depression.
  • Practice self-care: Self-care is essential for coping with any health issue. Taking better care of oneself can be as simple as getting enough sleep, eating nutritiously, engaging in physical activity, and finding ways to minimize stress and anxiety.
  • Explore complementary therapies: Meditation, acupuncture, or massage may help reduce symptoms and decrease sleeping difficulties.
  • Stay informed: Being updated on the latest advances in AIDS and cancer treatment can help individuals feel empowered and hopeful. It’s also important to keep up with new treatments to discuss all options with healthcare providers.
  • Seek medical assistance: Anyone dealing with AIDS and cancer should receive medical care from providers experienced in treating both conditions. For instance, our physicians at New Hope Medical Center may be able to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both diagnoses. If you’re ready to take a step towards a healthier future, call us at 480-757-6573 to book your consultation.

While finding hope and healing with AIDS-associated cancer can take time, just remember that it’s possible with proper care, support, and self-care practices.

Click here for our blog Disclaimer.