Cancer is now the leading cause of death among those who are HIV positive.
The finding was announced in a report released last week from the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Titled “Cancer Facts & Figures 2024,” the report noted that at least 10 cancers are associated with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer, liver cancer, anal cancer, lung cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma.
HIV-infected people are also 10 times more likely to develop infection-related cancers compared to the general population, the report stated.
The HIV/cancer link
People with HIV are seeing longer life expectancy due to improved antiretroviral drugs, noted Nicole B. Saphier, M.D., associate professor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a Fox News medical contributor — but this has also led to a higher risk of developing certain cancers.
“Decades ago, patients were dying from direct complications from HIV and cancers that developed because of a severely weakened immune system, such as lymphoma and Kaposi’s Sarcoma,” Saphier, who is also director of breast imaging at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Monmouth, New Jersey, told Fox News Digital.
“Now, rates of those particular cancers have declined. However, deaths from other cancers have begun to increase, specifically cancers associated with other viruses like HPV.”
People with HIV are more vulnerable to cancer due to a compromised immune system, Saphier said.
Azra Borogovac, M.D., a hematologist at City of Hope Orange County in Irvine, California, noted that certain viruses can increase the risk of different types of cancers.
“As a hematologist who treats patients with blood cancers, I’ve seen that HIV-infected people are at increased risk for both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” he told Fox News Digital.
“In these individuals, lymphomas are typically more aggressive and are more likely to spread beyond the lymph nodes.”
While HIV does not directly cause cancer, it affects the immune system in such a way that the person may become more susceptible to other infections that can lead to cancer, said Borogovac.
“When a virus invades the body, it can change the DNA of the cells in ways that make them more susceptible to becoming cancerous,” he told Fox News Digital.
However, the outlook for both HIV and lymphoma have improved greatly over the years due to advances in research and treatment, the doctor pointed out.
Key to curbing cancer rates
Preventive screenings and vaccinations are key to curbing cancer rates among those with HIV, experts agree.
“The shift in mortality patterns underscores the importance of comprehensive health care strategies addressing both HIV management and cancer prevention in this population, including HPV vaccination and cancer screening,” Saphier told Fox News Digital.
Borogovac said the best way to stop cancer is to prevent it in the first place.
“That starts with taking preventative measures to protect yourself from viruses such as HIV,” he said.
The virus spreads through bodily fluids, including blood, semen and breast milk.
To prevent transmission, it is recommended that people use contraceptives during sex, limit the number of sexual partners, get tested for HIV and avoid the use of drug needles, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“While there is currently no vaccine that can protect against HIV, there are medications that help prevent it, including PEP and PrEP,” said Borogovac.
“When a virus invades the body, it can change the DNA of the cells in ways that make them more susceptible to becoming cancerous.”
Overall, the impact of cancer on people who are HIV-positive is “of great concern,” the doctor said, noting that it reflects disparities in cancer care among at-risk groups.
“Many people with HIV face barriers to care — especially those who may not know they have HIV or do not have access to screenings and advanced treatments,” Borogovac said.
Screening is critical to reducing risk, he noted, as individuals who are infected with HIV may not show physical symptoms for many years.
The CDC recommends that anyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV at least once as part of their routine health care.
Despite the challenges that remain, Borogovac pointed out that there has been much progress in the treatment for the virus since the early days of the HIV epidemic.
“Today, FDA-approved antiretroviral therapy (ART) is recommended for everyone living with HIV,” he said, noting that these therapies prevent approximately two-thirds of cancer in individuals with HIV.
“These breakthrough medicines help patients keep HIV under control and prevent transmission to others,” Borogovac noted.
Fox News Digital reached out to the ACS requesting additional comment on the report’s findings.