Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and subsequent acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) causes severe suppression of the immune system which, over time, may lead to the development of cancer. One of the most common types of cancer that affects HIV/ AIDS patients is non- Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
In most cases, people infected with HIV live for years with that disease before cancer develops. They are usually comfortable and familiar with the combination of medications they take to keep their disease in control and are often leading a relatively healthy life with a life- threatening condition. So what happens when you throw a cancer diagnosis into the mix?
Society’s Meaning of AIDS and Cancer
Despite the fact that HIV infection is now present in people from across all cultures, populations and belief systems, there are still misconceptions about this disease. Our feelings about sexuality, religion, health, youth, and relationships can all come into play when forming an idea about the meaning of HIV/AIDS.
How you perceive these issues, and how you feel others perceive these issues may have an impact on how you live your life with HIV/AIDS. For example, you may choose to tell your family about your HIV diagnosis, but may try to hide it from certain friends or coworkers. This may not be difficult afterall, if your medication regime is keeping it in check.
In the case of cancer, particularly cancers such as lymphoma that do not have a clear cause, attitudes and beliefs are quite different. For the most part, people who are diagnosed with cancer are considered “victims” and those living with the disease are “heroes.” In some cases, you may be more willing to openly share a cancer diagnosis than that of HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, you might be influenced by the beliefs and misconceptions of society, or concerned that support and resources will be limited for you.
Facing a Life Threatening Disease, Or Two
Since the development of highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART), HIV is often considered to be a chronic illness that many live with for years. While most people realize that HIV/ AIDS is life threatening and limiting, it is often a distant notion.
Lymphoma, on the other hand, typically progresses quickly in AIDS patients and requires prompt treatment. As a result, this may be a new look at your own mortality. You may be feeling more vulnerable than ever- emotionally and physically- as you face new challenges and new treatments with little or no immunity or reserves.
Dealing With the Double Diagnosis
If you have been diagnosed with both HIV infection and lymphoma, you may be having a hard time keeping up a positive attitude and wondering how you are going to deal with the double whammy of these two diagnoses.
Many of the same coping strategies that are beneficial to other lymphoma patients will benefit you too:
- Communicate with and seek support from those that are supportive. If you have people in your life that make you feel worse about yourself or your situation, either steer clear of them, or choose to limit your expectations of them and not take it personally.
- Accept help from those who offer it, even if it is for something that seems small. Someone mowing your lawn or driving you to appointments can make a big difference over time.
- Know your financial options and resources. HIV, AIDS, and lymphoma are all very expensive diseases to have. Paying for treatment, potential loss of work time, can take a huge toll on one’s financial situation- and the regular bills don’t stop either!
- Consider a support group. Nobody in the world understands what you are going through better than someone else in the same situation. Just having an ear to listen to you can make all the difference in helping your stress and identifying new coping strategies.
Summing it Up
Living with two life threatening diseases can be very isolating and takes a toll on your ability to stay upbeat. Strategies that are beneficial to other lymphoma patients will be just as helpful, if not doubly necessary, to you as you learn to cope with this change in your health. It is important as you continue down this new and unfamiliar health care journey to identify the resources that you have in your life to make the road a little easier as you go.
Pace, J. “AIDS- Related Malignancies” in Yarbro, C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M., Groenwald, S. (eds) (2000) Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice 5th edition Jones and Bartlett: Sudbury, MA. (pp. 933- 949).
Dodds, N. “Two for the price of one: life with a dual diagnosis of HIV and cancer.” HIV Nursing Spring 2008.
Fife, BL., Wright E., “The dimensionality of stigma: a comparison of its impact on the self of persons with HIV/AIDS and cancer.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2000 41: 50-67.