What can people with HIV or AIDS do to try to lower their risk of cancer or find it early?

People with HIV infection or AIDS are at higher risk for certain types of cancer than those who are not infected. They also share the same risks for many other types of cancer. People with HIV or AIDS may be able to lower their risk of some cancers or find them early, when they are more likely to be treated effectively.

Lowering cancer risk

Certain cancers are more common in people with HIV, but even among different people with HIV, the risk of developing many types of cancer is higher if the infection is not well controlled – that is, if the CD4 (helper-T cell) count is low. This is one reason why it is important for people with HIV to stay on their medicines to help keep the infection under control.

The risk of some of types of cancer that are more common in people with HIV may be lowered by avoiding certain cancer risk factors. For example, not smoking or using injection drugs and avoiding or limiting alcohol may help lower the risk of some cancers. Some types of cancer linked with HIV and AIDS are caused by viruses that can be spread through sex, so using safer sex practices may also help protect against those cancers.

Vaccines against the hepatitis B virus may help protect against one possible cause of liver cancer. Vaccines are also available to help protect against certain human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, which may help prevent some cervical, anal, and other cancers. But the HPV vaccines are only effective if they are given before a person becomes infected with HPV, so they are typically recommended before a person becomes sexually active. Some screening tests that find pre-cancerous changes caused by HPV (see below) may actually help prevent some cancers if these pre-cancers are removed.

People with HIV are also at risk for other cancers, just like people who are not infected. There are some things all people can do that can help lower their overall cancer risk. For example, staying at a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet rich in plant-based foods, and avoiding or limiting alcohol may all help lower a person’s risk of cancer.

Finding cancer early

Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. While people with HIV are at higher risk for certain cancers, for most of these cancers there are no screening tests proven to help lower the risk of dying from them. For example, there are no tests commonly used to screen for either Kaposi sarcoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Still, careful, regular medical checkups are important to look for possible signs or symptoms of these cancers in people with HIV.

In people who have a cervix, cervical cancer can often be found early or even prevented by getting regular screening tests. The tests are done more often if a person has HIV. Experts recommend that women with HIV have a Pap test as soon as possible after being diagnosed with HIV. Depending on the results of the Pap test, more testing may be needed. How often women with HIV have a Pap test depends on the results of the first Pap test.

Other special screening tests for cancer in people with HIV are being studied. For instance, because people with HIV are also at high risk of anal cancer, some experts recommend they get a screening test very much like the Pap smear (sometimes called an anal Pap test).

Otherwise, the same cancer early detection tests that are recommended for people without HIV, such as screening tests for breast or colorectal cancer, can also help detect cancers in people with HIV. (For a list of current recommended tests, see American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer.) Your doctor and dentist should also take extra care during your regular checkups to keep a close watch for any early signs of cancer. If you are interested in more cancer screening options, ask your doctor about clinical trials for cancer detection in people with HIV.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: July 21, 2020

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