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People Living with HIV Can Lower their Cancer Risk

On World AIDS Day (1 December), CANSA highlights the increased risk of cancer in people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – (PLWH). Just over seven million South Africans are living with HIV, and it’s important to make them aware of their cancer risk and how to help lower their cancer risk. Dedicated antiretroviral therapy (ART) adherence, adopting a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise and cutting out tobacco and alcohol are helping PLWH to live a healthy and full life.

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Zodwa Sithole, CANSA’s Head Advocacy says,” The effects HIV has on a person’s immune system can increase their risk for other conditions, including cancer. This is because the virus makes it harder for the body to fight other infections and diseases.  PLWH are at a higher risk of AIDS-defining cancers: Kaposi sarcoma; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; conjunctival cancer; squamous cell carcinoma of the skin; and human papilloma virus (HPV) related cancers which include cervical, penile, anal and vulvar cancer. ” *

“PLWH can help lower their cancer risk and manage their HIV at the same time, by making healthy lifestyle choices. Lowering cancer risk, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer is important for people with HIV and can help them to reduce their risk of earlier death,” Sithole continues.

CANSA has the following tips to lower cancer risk – view Infographics

  • Antiretroviral therapy:PLWH should initiate ART early and adhere to ART to lower risk of Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A stronger immune system is very important protection  against many types of cancer.
  • Protect yourself and others from HIV and other viruses:HIV, HPV, hepatitis and herpes are transmitted through sex or sharing needles or other equipment used to inject drugs. Use a condom every time you have sex. Never share needles or syringe to inject substances. The risk of getting HIV among women is doubled by HPV infection. ** Cervical cancer screening in HIV-positive women should be done at HIV diagnosis, and every three years thereafter if negative (yearly if screening is positive) according to the guideline of the SA Cervical Cancer Policy.
  • Eat smart– You can help lower your risk of cancers of the breast, prostate, stomach, colon, and rectum by including important foods for cancer risk reduction and reducing those that increase the risk: Eating fruit and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C, carotenoids and are a source of fibre can help to reduce the risk of cancer. Wholegrains are a source of fibre, eat 30g of fibre daily from wholegrains.  Limit red or processed meat to 3 portions per week. Take note that processed or preserved meat is usually high in salt and preserving chemicals that can increase the cancer risk. Being overweight and obese increases the risk for cancer.  Cut down on sugar sweetened beverages, sweets, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, pastries, desserts and crisps as these are high in calories / kilojoules and can cause weight gain if consumed too often and too much.
  • Keep moving: Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your cancer risk. Try walking, jogging, riding a bike or skipping four or five days a week. People with HIV or AIDS sometimes have trouble maintaining their weight. Refer to a local health facility or doctor about how to exercise and eat enough to stay at a healthy weight.
  • Be SunSmart:Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 20 or higher. Wear a hat, sunglasses and UV protective clothing and stay out of the sun when UV rays are most intense, from 10:00 to 15:00.
  • Avoid drugs, alcohol and tobacco:Drugs can compromise your immune system and make it harder to stay healthy with HIV. By avoiding alcohol, you can help lower your risk for mouth, throat, liver and breast cancer. If you quit smoking you can help lower your risk for mouth, throat, lung, stomach, kidney, liver, pancreatic and bladder cancer. As soon as you stop smoking your body starts to heal and helps reduce your cancer risk.( )

* Dhokotera, T., Bohlius, J., Spoerri, A., Egger, M., Ncayiyana, J., Olago, V., Singh, E. and Sengayi, M., 2019. The burden of cancers associated with HIV in the South African public health sector, 2004–2014: a record linkage study. Infectious agents and cancer, 14(1), p.12.


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