Kaposi sarcoma is a cancer that causes lesions (abnormal tissue) to grow in the skin, the mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose and throat, lymph nodes or other organs. The lesions are usually purple and are made of cancer cells, new blood vessels, red blood cells, and white blood cells. Kaposi sarcoma is different from other cancers in that lesions may begin in more than one place in the body at the same time.
Human herpesvirus-8 (HHV-8) is found in the lesions of all patients with Kaposi sarcoma. This virus is also called Kaposi sarcoma herpesvirus (KSHV). Most people infected with HHV-8 do not get Kaposi sarcoma. Those infected with HHV-8 who are most likely to develop Kaposi sarcoma have immune systems weakened by disease or by drugs given after an organ transplant. There are several types of Kaposi sarcoma, including:
- Classic Kaposi sarcoma is a rare disease that gets worse slowly over many years. It’s found most often in older men of Italian or Eastern European Jewish origin.
- African Kaposi sarcoma is a fairly common form of the disease found in young adult males who live near the equator in Africa. Signs of African Kaposi sarcoma can be the same as classic Kaposi sarcoma. However, African Kaposi sarcoma can also be found in a much more aggressive form that may cause sores on the skin and spread from the skin to the tissues to the bone. Another form of Kaposi sarcoma that is common in young children in Africa does not affect the skin but spreads through the lymph nodes to vital organs, and quickly becomes fatal. This type of Kaposi sarcoma is not common in the United States.
- Immunosuppressive therapy–related Kaposi sarcoma is found in patients who have had an organ transplant (for example, a kidney, heart, or liver transplant). These patients take drugs to keep their immune systems from attacking the new organ. When the body’s immune system is weakened by these drugs, diseases like Kaposi sarcoma can develop. Immunosuppressive therapy–related Kaposi sarcoma often affects only the skin, but may also occur in the mucous membranes or certain other organs of the body. This type of Kaposi sarcoma is also called transplant-related or acquired Kaposi sarcoma.
- Epidemic Kaposi sarcoma occurs in patients who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which attacks and weakens the immune system. When the body’s immune system is weakened by HIV, infections and cancers such as Kaposi sarcoma can develop.
Nonepidemic Kaposi sarcoma that develops in homosexual men who have no signs or symptoms of HIV infection. This type of Kaposi sarcoma progresses slowly, with new lesions appearing every few years. The lesions are most common on the arms, legs, and genitals, but can develop anywhere on the skin. This type of Kaposi sarcoma is rare.
Signs & Symptoms
Signs of classic Kaposi sarcoma may include slow-growing lesions on the legs and feet. Patients may have one or more red, purple, or brown skin lesions on the legs and feet, most often on the ankles or soles of the feet.
Over time, lesions may form in other parts of the body, such as the stomach, intestines, or lymph nodes. The lesions usually don’t cause any symptoms, but may grow in size and number over a period of 10 years or more. Pressure from the lesions may block the flow of lymph and blood in the legs and cause painful swelling. Lesions in the digestive tract may cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
There are four types of standard treatment. Your OHC doctor will help you determine the best care plan for you.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.
- The following surgical procedures may be used for Kaposi sarcoma to treat small, surface lesions:
- Local excision: The cancer is cut from the skin along with a small amount of normal tissue around it.
- Electrodesiccation and curettage: The tumor is cut from the skin with a curette (a sharp, spoon-shaped tool). A needle-shaped electrode is then used to treat the area with an electric current that stops the bleeding and destroys cancer cells that remain around the edge of the wound. The process may be repeated one to three times during the surgery to remove all of the cancer.
- Cryosurgery: A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.
- Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.
- Immunotherapy or biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.