World AIDS Day: but what about the link between cancer and HIV?

HIV and cancer risk

hiv and cancerDecember 1st is World AIDS Day. This year’s theme is ‘Access Equity Right Now’. This is a call to work together and reach out to those who still lack access to treatment, prevention and care services, to strengthen the commitment of HIV research evidence-based interventions, to unite and overcome injustices. Further more, it is a reminder that we need to keep on pushing forward to make sure the gains that have been made over the last years will not be lost.

Do people who are infected with HIV have an increased risk for cancer?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). It is well know that people who are infected with HIV also have an increased risk for several types of cancer compared with those who are not infected with HIV. The following types of cancers are well known to be related with HIV infection and often occur when the infection transmits to AIDS: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cervical cancer, and Kaposi sarcoma.

What is the increased risk of developing a cancer if infected with HIV?

Literature points out that people are 5 times more likely to develop cervical cancer, 70 times more likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and thousands of times more likely to develop Kaposi sarcoma. Other cancers for which there is an increase risk are: Hodgkin lymphoma (10 times more likely), anal (25 times more likely), liver (5 times more likely) and lung cancer (3 times more likely).

Why do people with HIV infection have an increased risk for cancer?

This is related to a combination of factors. First of all, the immune system of people who are infected with HIV is impaired. In other words, the ability of the body to fight infections is reduced. Some of these infections might cause cancer. Additionally, a weak immune system also allows some cancers to grow or spread faster.

Unhealthy lifestyle habits are also often observed in people living with HIV, such as smoking or alcohol abuse. These unhealthy habits might also increase the risk for certain cancers.

What type of viruses might cause cancer?

Viruses that cause cancer, or contribute to an increased risk of cancer, are well described in the scientific literature. The following viruses are often shown to be more present when people suffer from HIV:

  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
  • Hepatitis B Virus (HBV)
  • Hepatitis C Virus (HCV)
  • Epstein Barr Virus (EBV)
  • Human Herpes Virus 8

So, in other words, it can be this combination of infections that contribute to the higher risk of cancer when infected with HIV.

HIV and cancer prevention

How to reduce the risk of getting infected with HIV?

Currently, there is no vaccine that prevents HIV infection. However, researchers all over the world are working on such a vaccine. Until now, the best way to prevent HIV infection is to educate yourself on the ways HIV can be transmitted. Transmission often happens via body fluids such as blood, breast milk, vaginal secretion or semen. Some tips include:

  • Using a condom while having sex
  • Using clean needles (for example, when injecting a drug or drawing blood)
  • If you are at high risk, talk to your physician. There are drugs on the market that can reduce the risk of transmission (Emtricitabine or PrEP), but not eliminate the risk of transmission.
  • Talk to your partner and have regular HIV testing if you are at high risk



  • Grulich AE, van Leeuwen MT, Falster MO, Vajdic CM. Incidence of cancers in people with HIV/AIDS compared with immunosuppressed transplant recipients: a meta-analysis. Lancet 2007; 370(9581):59–67.
  • Longo DL, et al., eds. Human immunodeficiency virus disease. In: Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 19th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2015.
  • HIV/AIDS. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
  • Lower your sexual risk of HIV.