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AIDS-related lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system of patients who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which attacks and weakens the body's immune system. A weakened immune system is unable to fight infection and disease. People with HIV disease have an increased risk of infection and lymphoma or other types of cancer. A person with HIV and certain types of infection or cancer, such as lymphoma, is diagnosed as having AIDS. Sometimes, people are diagnosed with AIDS and AIDS-related lymphoma at the same time. For information about AIDS and its treatment, please see the AIDSinfo website.
AIDS-related lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system. It helps protect the body from infection and disease.
The lymph system is made up of the following:
Lymph tissue is also found in other parts of the body such as the brain, stomach, thyroid gland, and skin.
Sometimes AIDS-related lymphoma occurs outside the lymph nodes in the bone marrow, liver, meninges (thin membranes that cover the brain) and gastrointestinal tract. Less often, it may occur in the anus, heart, bile duct, gingiva, and muscles.
Anatomy of the lymph system, showing the lymph vessels and lymph organs including lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.
There are many different types of lymphoma.
Lymphomas are divided into two general types:
Both non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin lymphoma may occur in patients with AIDS, but non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common. When a person with AIDS has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it is called AIDS-related lymphoma. When AIDS-related lymphoma occurs in the central nervous system (CNS), it is called AIDS-related primary CNS lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas are grouped by the way their cells look under a microscope. They may be indolent (slow-growing) or aggressive (fast-growing). AIDS-related lymphomas are aggressive. There are two main types of AIDS-related non-Hodgkin lymphoma:
For more information about lymphoma or AIDS-related cancers, see the following PDQ summaries:
Signs of AIDS-related lymphoma include weight loss, fever, and drenching night sweats.
These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by AIDS-related lymphoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the lymph system and other parts of the body are used to help diagnose AIDS-related lymphoma.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Other areas of the body, such as the liver, lung, bone, bone marrow, and brain, may also have a sample of tissue removed and checked by a pathologist for signs of cancer.
If cancer is found, the following tests may be done to study the cancer cells:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
After AIDS-related lymphoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment, but AIDS-related lymphoma is usually advanced when it is diagnosed.
The following tests and procedures may be used to find out if the cancer has spread:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
The following stages are used for AIDS-related lymphoma:
Stage I adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in one or more lymph nodes in a group of lymph nodes or, in rare cases, cancer is found in the Waldeyer's ring, thymus, or spleen. In stage IE (not shown), cancer has spread to one area outside the lymph system.
Stage I AIDS-related lymphoma is divided into stages I and IE.
Stage II AIDS-related lymphoma is divided into stages II and IIE.
In stage II, the term bulky disease refers to a larger tumor mass. The size of the tumor mass that is referred to as bulky disease varies based on the type of lymphoma.
Stage III adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in groups of lymph nodes both above and below the diaphragm; or in a group of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and in the spleen.
In stage III AIDS-related lymphoma, cancer is found:
Stage IV adult lymphoma. Cancer (a) has spread throughout one or more organs outside the lymph system; or (b) is found in two or more groups of lymph nodes that are either above the diaphragm or below the diaphragm and in one organ that is outside the lymph system and not near the affected lymph nodes; or (c) is found in groups of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and below the diaphragm and in any organ that is outside the lymph system; or (d) is found in the liver, bone marrow, more than one place in the lung, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The cancer has not spread directly into the liver, bone marrow, lung, or CSF from nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IV AIDS-related lymphoma, cancer:
Patients who are infected with the Epstein-Barr virus or whose AIDS-related lymphoma affects the bone marrow have an increased risk of the cancer spreading to the central nervous system (CNS).
For treatment, AIDS-related lymphomas are grouped based on where they started in the body, as follows:
Lymphoma that starts in the lymph system or elsewhere in the body, other than the brain, is called peripheral/systemic lymphoma. It may spread throughout the body, including to the brain or bone marrow. It is often diagnosed in an advanced stage.
Primary CNS lymphoma
Primary CNS lymphoma starts in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It is linked to the Epstein-Barr virus. Lymphoma that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the central nervous system is not primary CNS lymphoma.
There are different types of treatment for patients with AIDS-related lymphoma.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with AIDS-related lymphoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Treatment of AIDS-related lymphoma combines treatment of the lymphoma with treatment for AIDS.
Patients with AIDS have weakened immune systems and treatment can cause the immune system to become even weaker. For this reason, treating patients who have AIDS-related lymphoma is difficult and some patients may be treated with lower doses of drugs than lymphoma patients who do not have AIDS.
Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is used to lessen the damage to the immune system caused by HIV. Treatment with HAART may allow some patients with AIDS-related lymphoma to safely receive anticancer drugs in standard or higher doses. In these patients, treatment may work as well as it does in lymphoma patients who do not have AIDS. Medicine to prevent and treat infections, which can be serious, is also used.
For more information about AIDS and its treatment, please see the AIDSinfo website.
Four types of standard treatment are used:
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
Intrathecal chemotherapy may be used in patients who are more likely to have lymphoma in the central nervous system (CNS).Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.
Chemotherapy is used in the treatment of AIDS-related peripheral/systemic lymphoma. It is not yet known whether it is best to give HAART at the same time as chemotherapy or after chemotherapy ends.
Colony-stimulating factors are sometimes given together with chemotherapy. This helps lessen the side effects chemotherapy may have on the bone marrow.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
High doses of chemotherapy are given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood -forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient and are frozen and stored. After the patient completes chemotherapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment for AIDS-related lymphoma may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of AIDS-related peripheral/systemic lymphoma may include the following:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of AIDS-related primary central nervous system lymphoma may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about AIDS-related lymphoma, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ AIDS-Related Lymphoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lymphoma/patient/aids-related-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389358]
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Last Revised: 2020-03-20
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