There are over 1.2 million HIV-positive people in the United States. Worldwide, about 37.7 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.
Lowering your risk of cancer is important for everyone, but if you are HIV-positive, the stakes are even higher. Studies confirm that HIV patients are more likely to develop certain cancers, including so-called AIDS-defining cancers – Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They are also more likely to die of cancer than HIV-negative people.
This article will discuss how to lower your risk of cancer if you are HIV-positive and how to avoid AIDS-defining cancers and their risk factors.
Take your HIV medication
One of the reasons HIV-positive people have a higher chance of developing cancer is that they tend to neglect to take their HIV medication. Most antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS decrease viral load, meaning there are fewer viruses in the blood.
If you don’t take your anti-retroviral medication, HIV replication will continue. The more the virus replicates in your blood, the higher your chances are of developing cancerous cells that can spread to other parts of your body through the lymphatic or circulatory system. It is also important to take antiretroviral drugs before you contract AIDS.
Research has found that starting ART immediately after HIV diagnosis reduces the risk of developing cancer by an astounding 64%!
Make sure you take your anti-retroviral therapy regularly, even if it means taking them at different times each day, because otherwise, they may not be as effective in restoring your immune system and reducing inflammation. Taking medication correctly also reduces side effects and makes treatment more tolerable.
Get informed about other viral infections
The very nature of HIV means that an HIV patient is more susceptible to other viruses and infectious diseases. Co-infection with HIV can hasten the development of AIDS and increase your risk of cancer.
Certain viral infections, such as HPV (human papillomavirus) and Epstein Barr virus (EBV), are linked with an increased risk of developing certain cancers in HIV-positive people. HPV is a virus that causes cervical cancer and other cancers of the reproductive tract in women. EBV is a virus that can cause Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and stomach cancer.
Moreover, viruses that cause Hepatitis B and C also increase the risk of liver cancer.
Be sure to get vaccinated against HPV and Hepatitis B, as both can be prevented with vaccines. If you are already infected with one or more of these viruses, ensure you receive appropriate treatment and follow your doctor’s instructions.
Even though the prevalence of cigarette smoking among US adults has lowered over time, the HIV-positive population still has a 2 to 3 times higher smoking rate than the general population.
Smoking is bad for everyone, but it is especially harmful to people with HIV. Cigarette smoke contains over 7000 chemicals, including cancer-causing agents and toxins like arsenic and cyanide. Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer, throat cancer, and numerous other cancers. It also makes the cancer treatment process less effective and reduces the chances of a full recovery.
Smoking also increases your risk of other diseases like heart attack, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and respiratory infection. For people with HIV, these consequences can be even more severe because they already face increased rates of cardiovascular disease.
If you are a smoker, make an effort to quit. It may also help to switch from smoking cigarettes to using e-cigarettes or nicotine replacement therapies like patches and gum.
Get screened regularly
Regular cancer screening is essential not only for HIV-infected patients but also for anyone at risk for cancer. Cancer screening tests look for signs of cancer before any symptoms develop.
Many different types of cancer screenings can be useful for HIV-positive people, depending on the type of cancer you are most at risk for.
For example, cervical Pap smears can detect early signs of cervical cancer in women, while mammograms can help detect breast cancer in women, and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests can screen for prostate cancer in men.
Screening tests are important because they allow for early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, which increases the chances of a full recovery.
Make sure you talk to your doctor about what type of screenings are best for you and schedule regular appointments to get screened.
Reduce sun exposure
Excessive sun exposure is a major risk factor for skin cancer. People with HIV are at an increased risk for developing skin cancer, especially non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), such as squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas.
To reduce your risk of skin cancer, avoid excessive sun exposure and wear sunscreen when you go outside. Sunscreen should have an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher and be applied every two hours.
Additionally, try to avoid sunburns by staying in the shade when possible and wearing clothing that covers your skin. Sunburns are caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays that can damage DNA in healthy skin cells and increase cancer risk.
Using tanning beds is also bad for your health, so avoid them whenever possible.
If you have a lot of moles or unusual-looking lesions on your skin, see a dermatologist for regular checkups.
Maintain good immune function
If you are HIV-positive, it is especially important to maintain good immune function and avoid infections as much as possible. This doesn’t mean only adhering to your prescribed HIV treatment but living a healthy lifestyle in general.
Some things you can do to boost your immune system and reduce your risk of infection include:
- Eating a balanced diet – A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercising regularly – Maintaining good physical health with regular exercise is an excellent way to avoid feeling tired or run down. This does not mean that you have to hit the gym – any exercise is beneficial.
- Getting enough sleep at night – Sleeping well helps your immune system function properly during the day by giving it time to regenerate cells that fight infection.
- Reducing alcohol use – Drinking too much alcohol can further suppress your immune system, increasing cancer risk.
- Stress-free living – Stress can cause your body’s defense mechanisms to weaken, so it’s important to get plenty of relaxation time to avoid getting overwhelmed by day-to-day stress. Preserving your mental health is just as important as maintaining physical fitness.
You should also avoid contact with sick people as much as possible and make sure you are up-to-date on all your vaccinations.
Talk to your doctor about any supplements or medications you may be taking that could interfere with your HIV treatment.
While an HIV diagnosis can be scary, there are plenty of things you can do to maintain a long and healthy life, especially now in the era of antiretroviral therapy.
First and foremost, taking your HIV medication as prescribed and staying adherent to your treatment is key to lowering your risk of both AIDS-defining and other types of cancer.
Second, expand your knowledge about infections, especially other viral infections that can co-exist with HIV, and how to best protect yourself against them.
If it is at all possible, stop smoking and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States and increases your risk for many types of cancer, including lung cancer.
Last but not least, eat healthily and exercise regularly. Maintain good immune function through stress management and vaccinations. Get regular screenings for specific types of cancer (according to recommended guidelines). By following the above, HIV-positive people can greatly reduce their cancer risk.
To ensure a cancer-free future, consider donating to one of our active cancer research campaigns.