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What Is Kaposi's Sarcoma?

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  • Written By: Victoria Blackburn
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2014
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Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) is a cancer of the cells lining the lymph or blood vessels. The illness is identified by purplish or reddish-brown lesions that form on the patient’s skin and typically spread to the major organs and orifices, particularly the mouth, nose and anus. These lesions often form with no additional symptoms, and although they look painful, they normally don’t cause any discomfort. Kaposi's sarcoma is a strain of the Kaposi's sarcoma herpes virus (KSHV) and is named after Dr. Moritz Kaposi, who first studied it in 1872.

In recent years, Kaposi's sarcoma has been most closely connected with those suffering from AIDS and is one of the first telltale signs of the person officially having AIDS versus only being HIV positive. A healthy immune system is normally able to fight off KS, but an AIDS patient’s weakened immune system is unable to fight the KSHV viral cells. Kaposi's sarcoma further diminishes the patient’s immune system, causing them to cease functioning. Many patients have the visible lesions removed for cosmetic reasons, although they may return.

The lesions that form are actually malignant tumors. In other words, the cancer cells can and will spread to other parts of the body. Currently, there are no preventative treatments available for Kaposi's sarcoma, just as there are no self-exams or biopsies that can catch it early, as with many other forms of cancer.

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There are four ways that KS is usually treated: radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and immunotherapy. Many doctors are hesitant to attempt chemotherapy because of the potentially damaging effects it can have on a patient’s already delicate immune system. Immunotherapy uses interferons, which are substances that help boost the body’s immune system, to help the body fight the virus. In those with epidemic KS, anti-viral drugs are used to fight the AIDS virus as well as being combined with other methods to fight the KSHV virus.

There are four main types of KS. Epidemic or AIDS-related Kaposi's is the disease that occurs in people who have AIDS. Classic or Mediterranean affects the elderly of Mediterranean, Eastern European and Middle Eastern descent, usually men. Endemic (African) affects residents of equatorial Africa who are not HIV positive or suffering from AIDS. Iatrogenic Kaposi's sarcoma is the third group and is also called transplant-associated KS and is found in those who have had an organ transplant and as a result have a suppressed immune system to prevent rejection.

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