What is Kaposi Sarcoma?
Kaposi sarcoma is a cancer that can cause patches of abnormal tissue to grow under the skin, in the mouth, nose or throat, or in the gastrointestinal tract in people with weakened immune systems. These skin lesions can appear on several parts of the body at one time.
If the cancer spreads, it can affect organs including the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines, as well as the lymph nodes that fight infection. There are four types of Kaposi sarcoma that include:
- HIV-related Kaposi sarcoma: This type is one of the most common cancers in people infected with HIV.
- Classic Kaposi sarcoma: This type of cancer affects men of Mediterranean or Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
- Transplant-related Kaposi sarcoma: This rare type of cancer can occur in organ transplant patients who take anti-rejection medication that lowers their ability to fight infections.
- Endemic African Kaposi Sarcoma: This cancer is found mostly in African men with weakened immune systems.
Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with cancer and the diagnosis, treatment and management of Kaposi sarcoma. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of Kaposi sarcoma vary by type, but in general, they can include:
- Painless, flat skin lesions, which can look red or purple on white skin and black, brown or blue on dark skin
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Swelling in the arms and legs
- Breathlessness and cough
- Digestive problems including pain and diarrhea
A physician can often diagnose Kaposi sarcoma by seeing the abnormal patches on the skin, asking about symptoms and performing a physical exam. To confirm the diagnosis, we also use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology that will inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:
Biopsy: During a biopsy, the physician may take a small piece of tissue from the skin and examine it under a microscope for cancer cells. If lesions are in the lungs and intestines, a biopsy procedure called a bronchoscopy or endoscopy may be performed.
Bronchoscopy: During this test, a thin tube with a light and a lens is inserted in the nose or mouth and down the throat into the breathing airways to check the lungs for tumors.
Computed tomography (CT) scan: This test uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional picture of lymph nodes or other organs to see if a tumor is present.
Endoscopy: During this test, a thin tube with a light and a lens is inserted in the nose or mouth and down the throat to look for signs of cancer in the digestive system.
HIV testing: A blood test can show if HIV is present (if the viral infection has not been diagnosed previously). For those with HIV, treating this virus will help the body fight the virus that causes Kaposi sarcoma.
Kaposi sarcoma is caused by human herpesvirus 8, or HHV-8. Most people have this virus. But HHV-8 multiplies in the blood of people whose bodies can’t fight infections well. In cases of HIV-related Kaposi sarcoma, HIV is spread through unprotected sex, saliva or an HIV-infected mother giving birth to a baby.
Risk factors that can lead to Kaposi sarcoma include:
Ethnicity: Men older than 50 of Mediterranean or Ashkenazi Jewish descent can develop Kaposi sarcoma, due to genetic factors.
Gender: Men are eight times more likely than women to develop Kaposi sarcoma.
Immune deficiency: People with HIV/AIDS and others with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of developing Kaposi sarcoma.
Organ transplant: The body’s ability to fight infection is lowered when taking medication to prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted organ.
While many risk factors cannot be controlled, the best way to prevent Kaposi sarcoma is by keeping the immune system strong. This can be done through healthy lifestyle choices and the use of protection for safe sex.
If Kaposi sarcoma is diagnosed and treated early, the condition can be managed for years, but not cured.
Treatment and Recovery
The treatment of Kaposi sarcoma depends upon the type, how far and quickly the condition has progressed and a person’s overall health. For those with classic Kaposi sarcoma, immediate treatment may not be needed because the cancer grows slowly. But if symptoms worsen, it is important to see a physician immediately. For people with other types of Kaposi sarcoma, treatment methods may include:
Receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can help people with HIV fight the development of Kaposi sarcoma. HAART, a combination of several medicines, strengthens the immune system to fight the cancer-causing virus.
If the immune system is fairly strong, alpha interferon produced in the body can jump-start the immune system to fight HHV-8, the virus that causes Kaposi sarcoma.
Chemotherapy uses special drugs designed to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered as a pill or injected into the bloodstream and may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells and as a means of reducing symptoms.
This treatment uses a synthetic version of immune system cells that are designed to help the body boost its natural defenses to fight the cancer.
This treatment uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. Most often, radiation treatments are given five days a week for several weeks.
Stopping Immunosuppressant Therapy
If transplant-related Kaposi sarcoma is developing quickly, reduction of the medication to prevent organ rejection may be prescribed. This will allow the immune system to help fight the virus causing Kaposi sarcoma.
A surgeon can remove small skin patches or use a surgical freezing technique to destroy the cancer cells.
Complications of Kaposi sarcoma can include:
- A build-up of fluid in the lungs
- Internal bleeding
- Obstruction of the throat, pain and difficulty breathing
- Trouble swallowing, speaking or eating
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