AUSTIN, Texas — Advancements in drug therapies and medications mean HIV is no longer a death sentence, but the population of those living with HIV is growing older and cancer risks are shifting.
In 2004, Kelly Alexander completed six months of chemotherapy.
“[It was] hell. I mean, it was horrible. It was the worst thing in the world,” Alexander said. “You get up and ride the bus knowing that you’re going to have six or eight hours worth of chemo and then you’re going to have to get on the bus and ride the bus home. It wasn’t fun.”
The 51-year-old was diagnosed with HIV-associated kaposi sarcoma in 2004. Today, Alexander is a survivor and a volunteer for AIDS Services of Austin, where he helps others in his community. He said had he been diagnosed in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, it may have been a different story for him.
“You would have been dying at that point, past the point of recovery,” he said.
While AIDS-defining cancers like kaposi sarcoma are decreasing, there are new health risks among HIV patients who get older and live longer, according to a new report from the National Cancer Institute.
“They may end up at higher risk for age-related cancers for example. Additionally, they may also be at higher risk for chronic conditions,” said Ana Herrera, a nurse practitioner and the director of clinic services for AIDS Services of Austin.
By 2030, researchers project that lung and prostate cancers will be the most common cancer types among adult HIV patients. They say by then, more than 21 percent of people living with the virus will be 65 and older.
“As persons living with HIV age, they should continue regular follow-up with their primary care provider, access to routine screenings for cancers based on national guidelines, maintain adherence to their HIV medication regimens,” Herrera said.
Alexander said for the past 15 years, he has achieved undetectable levels after undergoing antiretroviral therapy.
“I’m pretty luck to be honest,” he said.
In the report, doctors call for expanded access to HIV therapies and cancer prevention, as well as screening and treatment.
In Austin, advocates said the average wait time for people newly diagnosed with HIV is 45 days. AIDS Services of Austin is constructing a new clinic to help its clients access primary health care, HIV-related services and other programs all in one place. The clinic is set to open this summer.
“Providing this primary care home and services associated with primary care at our location will increase access for patients that might otherwise be delayed in receiving care,” Herrera said.