If you’re living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you have a higher-than-average risk of developing certain cancers. Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that begins in the lymphatic system — organs, lymph nodes, and vessels running throughout the body. Lymphoma is associated so commonly with HIV infection that some types of lymphoma are recognized as AIDS-defining illnesses.
If you live with HIV, it’s important to familiarize yourself with early symptoms of lymphoma. Any new or concerning symptoms should spur you to speak with your doctor right away.
More than 40 percent of people living with HIV are diagnosed with some type of cancer. Several immunodeficiency states — where your immune system is unable to properly fight off infections and viruses — have been associated with varieties of malignancies (cancers).
HIV induces an immunodeficiency state. This means for people living with HIV, many of their lymphocytes — such as natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that kills tumor cells) — are unable to function correctly. This might make a person with HIV more susceptible to developing cancer.
What’s more, people with HIV may have other common viral infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or human herpesvirus. These types of infections also relate to the increased lymphoma risk.
Treating cancers like lymphoma can be more difficult in people living with HIV. People with HIV/AIDS often have low blood cell counts already. This makes it difficult to treat them with chemotherapy.
However, doctors are now using a therapy regimen called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). This HIV treatment makes it easier for your body to tolerate chemo. Undergoing HAART may also lower a person’s risk of developing lymphoma.
The two primary types of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, both of which have many subtypes. Certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are more closely associated with HIV, including:
Some myHIVteam members have shared their lymphoma diagnoses. “I was diagnosed with CNS lymphoma,” said one member. “After a few months, I have completed six cycles of chemotherapy and I am finishing up my radiation. I have no other complications — just cancer and HIV-positive.”
Another member shared, “I was diagnosed with HIV at the same time I found out I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The double whammy scared the heck out of me. I’m happy as hell that my cancer is in remission and I no longer have to go through chemo. I was very lucky that my side effects were extremely minimal.”
Symptoms of lymphoma are often very general and may be associated with more common illnesses. This can make lymphoma symptoms easy to miss.
Some lymphoma symptoms are called B symptoms. These include fever, night sweats, and weight loss. Sometimes, the presence of these symptoms means the cancer is growing more quickly.
Here are potential lymphoma symptoms that you should keep an eye out for and bring up with your doctor if you have concerns.
Swollen lymph nodes are the most common sign of lymphoma. The swelling is painless and may occur in your neck, armpits, or groin. A cancerous lymph node may be larger than three-quarters of an inch or feel hard and solid.
Frequently experiencing fevers of 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher might signal lymphoma. Lymphoma can cause fevers when your cells make chemicals that affect temperature regulation.
Persistent, severe fatigue may be cause for concern. This fatigue might look like weakness, shortness of breath, or trouble walking.
Night sweats are another lymphoma symptom related to chemicals that your lymphoma cells are producing. Night sweats are episodes of heavy perspiration while you sleep that can leave your sheets and sleepwear soaked. Often, a fever and night sweats will come together.
Cancer often causes weight loss because your body is working so hard to fight the cancer. Unintentionally losing more than 5 percent of your body weight over a period of six to 12 months may be an early lymphoma symptom.
Another lymphoma symptom is itchy skin. When you have lymphoma, this itchiness happens because your immune system is releasing chemicals called cytokines.
A cough and/or shortness of breath can be a sign of lymphoma in your chest. You may also feel chest pain or pressure.
People who have lymphoma in the abdomen may experience abdominal pain and may feel full quickly. These symptoms can occur if the spleen grows bigger or fluid builds up.
Abnormal or excessive bleeding can happen because of low blood platelet counts. Symptoms may include:
If you have had any of the symptoms above for longer than two weeks or if you are experiencing any new, abnormal symptoms that concern you, speak with your doctor right away. When living with a chronic (ongoing) condition like HIV, it’s crucial to stay in communication with your health care team to catch any new symptoms — especially those that could be signs of a condition such as lymphoma.
After listening to your symptoms, your doctor will decide if you need further testing. Tests to diagnose lymphoma can include a physical exam, a lymph node biopsy, blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, or imaging like a CT scan.
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Are you living with HIV and concerned about the risk of developing lymphoma? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.