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Non-AIDS-Defining Cancers: Five Ways to Reduce Your Risk

, by Reilly O'Neal

Although cancer rates are decreasing in the general U.S. population, two recently published studies have found that non-AIDS-defining cancers are occurring  more frequently among people living with HIV.

In a study reported in the December 28, 2012, advance edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, Hodgkin lymphoma and lung cancer were the most common non-AIDS-defining cancers—that is, cancers besides non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, and invasive cervical cancer, all of which have been used to define progression to AIDS. The second study focused on cases of non-melanoma skin cancer in a sample of adults receiving care in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California system. The results, described in the January 4, 2013, advance edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, revealed a twofold higher rate of new cases among the HIV-positive participants. (For a detailed summary of both studies, read Liz Highleyman’s article at HIVandHepatitis.com.)

What can you do to reduce your risk for these non-AIDS-defining malignancies? Here are five steps, adapted from fact sheets from the National Cancer Institute and the University of California at San Francisco, that may help you prevent or detect (and therefore treat) these types of cancer.

  • Start and stick with an HIV treatment regimen. A growing body of research, including both of the studies described above, links low CD4 cells counts with higher likelihood of developing cancers. Finding a regimen that works for you and boosts your immune health can go a long way to preventing cancer.
  • Quit smoking. Because people with HIV have an increased risk for lung cancer, it is especially important that they don’t light up. Need help quitting? The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers a toll-free smoking quitline at 1–877–448–7848 (1–877–44U–QUIT).
  • Get tested for hepatitis. Help protect yourself from liver cancer by knowing your hepatitis status; if you test positive for hepatitis B or C (HBV and HCV for short), talk with your medical provider about your treatment options. Also, the NCI advises that those who “have previously been infected with HBV or HCV…should consider reducing their alcohol consumption.”
  • Check your skin. Non-melanoma skin cancer may appear as a small, smooth, shiny, pale, or waxy lump, or may be firm and red. The lump may bleed easily or form a crust. Check your skin regularly and talk to your medical provider about any new growths or changes that concern you.
  • Get a Pap test, ladies—and gentlemen. Pap tests (also called “Pap smears”) are used to screen for cancer, and for abnormal cell changes that may lead to cancer. The procedure involves gently scraping cells from the cervix or the anus and rectum. Because HIV-positive women are at higher risk for cervical cancer, regular screening is very important. Some researchers also recommend anal Pap test screening to catch and treat any cell changes before they progress to anal cancer. This type of screening, the NCI states, may be most beneficial for men who have sex with men.

[Note: The information provided on the BETA blog is not intended as medical advice or as a substitute for talking with your own medical provider about your HIV health and cancer risk. For tips and strategies for improving communication and strengthening your relationship with your own medical team, see “Making the Most of Your Medical Visits.”]

Reilly O’Neal is a freelance writer and former editor of BETA.

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