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Kaposi's Sarcoma - Trying to Understand this Cancer

Todd Williams Nov. 17, 2023 #Cancer
kaposi's sarcoma disease


Kaposi's sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that originates in the cells that line the blood vessels or lymphatic vessels. It is characterized by the development of abnormal, cancerous tissues, often presenting as lesions on the skin or mucous membranes.

Kaposi's sarcoma is strongly associated with infection by human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), also known as Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV). This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of Kaposi's sarcoma, exploring its definition, causes, symptoms and available treatment options.

Defining Kaposi's Sarcoma

Kaposi's sarcoma is a type of cancer that arises from the endothelial cells, which line the blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. The cancer is named after Moritz Kaposi, the Hungarian dermatologist who first described the disease in 1872. There are several subtypes of Kaposi's sarcoma, with the four main types being classic, endemic (African), iatrogenic and epidemic (associated with HIV/AIDS).

Classic Kaposi's Sarcoma:

This subtype primarily affects elderly individuals of Mediterranean or Eastern European descent. It typically manifests as lesions on the lower extremities and progresses slowly.

Endemic (African) Kaposi's Sarcoma:

This form is more prevalent in certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa. It tends to be more aggressive and can affect internal organs, often leading to a more severe course of the disease.

Iatrogenic Kaposi's Sarcoma:

Iatrogenic Kaposi's sarcoma occurs as a result of medical treatments that suppress the immune system, such as organ transplantation and immunosuppressive therapy. The lesions may develop more rapidly and be more widespread.

Epidemic (AIDS-Related) Kaposi's Sarcoma:

This subtype is strongly associated with HIV/AIDS and is often the first indication of HIV infection. It tends to be more aggressive and can affect multiple organs.

Causes of Kaposi's Sarcoma

Kaposi's sarcoma is closely linked to infection with human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), also known as Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV). HHV-8 is a member of the herpesvirus family and is transmitted through saliva, sexual contact and organ transplantation. However, the development of Kaposi's sarcoma is not solely dependent on HHV-8 infection; other factors, such as immune system suppression, may contribute to the development and progression of the disease.

HHV-8 Infection:

HHV-8 is considered a necessary factor for the development of Kaposi's sarcoma. The virus integrates its genetic material into the DNA of infected cells, leading to the abnormal growth and division of these cells. The exact mechanisms by which HHV-8 induces cancerous changes are complex and not fully understood.


Suppression of the immune system is a significant contributing factor to the development of Kaposi's sarcoma. Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, organ transplantation, or long-term use of immunosuppressive medications, increase the risk of Kaposi's sarcoma.

Genetic Factors:

While HHV-8 infection is necessary for the development of Kaposi's sarcoma, genetic factors may also play a role in determining an individual's susceptibility to the disease. Research suggests that certain genetic variations may influence the likelihood of developing Kaposi's sarcoma upon HHV-8 infection.

Symptoms of Kaposi's Sarcoma

The symptoms of Kaposi's sarcoma can vary depending on the subtype and the extent of the disease. In its early stages, Kaposi's sarcoma often presents as painless, flat, or raised lesions that can range in color from pink to dark purple. These lesions may appear on the skin, mucous membranes or internal organs. Common symptoms include:

Skin Lesions:

The most recognizable symptom of Kaposi's sarcoma is the development of skin lesions. These can be flat, raised, or nodular and are often painless. The lesions may initially appear red or purple and can progress to darker colors over time.

Mucous Membrane Lesions:

Kaposi's sarcoma can affect the mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose and gastrointestinal tract. Lesions in these areas may cause discomfort, bleeding or difficulty swallowing.


In some cases, Kaposi's sarcoma can lead to swelling in the affected areas, particularly in the legs.

Internal Organ Involvement:

In advanced cases, Kaposi's sarcoma can affect internal organs, such as the lungs, liver or digestive organs. This can lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath, abdominal pain or gastrointestinal bleeding.

It's important to note that the severity and progression of Kaposi's sarcoma can vary widely among individuals. Prompt diagnosis and intervention are crucial for effective management.

Treatment Options for Kaposi's Sarcoma

The treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma depends on various factors, including the subtype of the disease, the extent of involvement and the overall health of the individual. Treatment approaches may include:

Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) for HIV/AIDS-Related Kaposi's Sarcoma:

In cases where Kaposi's sarcoma is associated with HIV/AIDS, antiretroviral therapy is a key component of treatment. ART helps suppress HIV replication, allowing the immune system to recover and potentially control the progression of Kaposi's sarcoma.

Local Therapies:

For localized skin lesions, various local therapies may be employed, including:

Topical Chemotherapy: Creams or gels containing chemotherapeutic agents may be applied directly to the skin lesions.

Cryotherapy: Freezing the lesions using liquid nitrogen can be an effective method for removal.

Radiation Therapy: Targeted radiation can be used to shrink or eliminate lesions, particularly in cases where they are causing symptoms or disfigurement.

Systemic Chemotherapy:

In cases where Kaposi's sarcoma has spread beyond the skin and local therapies are not sufficient, systemic chemotherapy may be recommended. Chemotherapy drugs, such as liposomal doxorubicin or paclitaxel, can be administered intravenously to target cancer cells throughout the body.


Immunotherapy aims to boost the body's immune response against cancer cells. Interferon-alpha, a type of immunotherapy, has been used in some cases of Kaposi's sarcoma, although its efficacy can vary.

Targeted Therapies:

Targeted therapies focus on specific molecules or pathways involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. In recent years, targeted therapies such as bevacizumab and lenvatinib have shown promise in the treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma.


Surgical removal of individual lesions may be considered, especially when lesions are causing significant symptoms or cosmetic concerns. However, surgery is often not the primary treatment modality for widespread or internal Kaposi's sarcoma.

Clinical Trials:

Participation in clinical trials may be an option for individuals with Kaposi's sarcoma, especially in cases where standard treatments are not providing the desired outcomes. Clinical trials explore new treatments or combinations of treatments to improve the management of the disease.

Precautions and Considerations

While advancements in the understanding and treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma have improved outcomes for many individuals, there are important considerations and precautions to keep in mind:

Regular Monitoring:

Individuals with Kaposi's sarcoma, especially those with HIV/AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma, require regular monitoring and follow-up care. This includes routine physical examinations, imaging studies and laboratory tests to assess the progression of the disease and the response to treatment.

Management of Underlying Conditions:

For cases of Kaposi's sarcoma associated with conditions such as HIV/AIDS or immunosuppression, effective management of the underlying condition is crucial. This may involve antiretroviral therapy for HIV or adjustments to immunosuppressive medications.

Multidisciplinary Care:

Kaposi's sarcoma often requires a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. Collaboration among oncologists, infectious disease specialists, dermatologists and other healthcare professionals ensures comprehensive and individualized care.

Psychosocial Support:

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally challenging. Individuals with Kaposi's sarcoma may benefit from psychosocial support, including counseling, support groups and access to resources that address the emotional and psychological aspects of living with cancer.

Adherence to Treatment Plans:

Adherence to prescribed treatment plans, including medications and follow-up appointments, is crucial for optimal outcomes. Open communication with healthcare providers about any concerns or challenges related to treatment is essential.


Kaposi's sarcoma, though rare, can have a significant impact on affected individuals, particularly those with compromised immune systems. The disease's association with HHV-8 and its various subtypes necessitate a tailored approach to diagnosis and treatment. Advances in antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma and the exploration of targeted therapies offer hope for improved outcomes.

Early detection, regular monitoring, and a comprehensive treatment plan that considers the individual's overall health are key components of managing Kaposi's sarcoma. Ongoing research and clinical trials continue to expand our understanding of the disease and may uncover new avenues for more effective treatments in the future. As with any cancer, a collaborative and patient-centered approach, involving healthcare professionals, patients, and support networks, is essential for navigating the complexities of Kaposi's sarcoma and optimizing the quality of life for those affected by this condition.