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What is Kaposi Sarcoma?

November 28, 2017

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Kaposi sarcoma (KS) is a type of cancer that is caused by the human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8), which is also known as Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV). An HHV-8 infection can cause the cells that line lymph or blood vessels to begin to divide uncontrollably and invade surrounding tissues. The resulting accumulation of excess cells can form lesions in various parts of the body, including the skin, mucosal surfaces, lymph nodes, lungs and digestive tract.

Because a healthy immune system can usually keep HHV-8 infections at bay, KS is relatively uncommon among the general population. However, a weakened immune system may be unable to effectively fight off HHV-8, which can allow KS to develop. For this reason, KS often affects people who take medications that suppress the immune system, such as corticosteroids, as well as individuals who are living with untreated human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). KS is considered to be an acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)-defining condition, which means that an HIV-positive patient who develops KS is officially considered to have developed AIDS at that point as well.

KS lesions that form in the skin often resemble bruises, appearing as bumps, spots or patches in a variety of colors, including pink, dark red, purple and brown. Usually, these lesions do not cause any discomfort. On the other hand, KS lesions that develop inside the body can potentially affect the functioning of internal organs. For instance:

  • Lesions in the lungs can cause chest infections, coughing and breathing difficulties.
  • Lesions in the mouth or throat can make it difficult to speak, eat or swallow.
  • Lesions in the lymph nodes and lymph vessels (parts of the immune system) can cause painful arm or leg swelling.

Of course, these symptoms can be produced by a number of other conditions as well, so they are not definitive signs of KS. A physician can usually confirm a diagnosis by performing a biopsy of a skin lesion or ordering another diagnostic test, such as an endoscopy, bronchoscopy or blood test.

Treatment for KS focuses on strengthening the immune system. For patients who are diagnosed with AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma, HIV treatment may be all that is necessary for managing the associated KS symptoms. By strengthening the immune system, HIV treatment can protect against KS as well as slow its progression.

If you’d like to learn more about Kaposi sarcoma, you can contact Moffitt by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online. No referrals are necessary.