Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS.) is a cancer in which malignant cells appear as red or purple patches under the skin or the mucous membranes. These lesions most commonly originate on the legs and, depending upon their type, may spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, or intestinal tract. The disease is named for Dr. Moritz Kaposi, a Hungarian-born dermatologist who first described it in 1872 as a rare disease afflicting older Italian and Middle Eastern Jewish men. By the early 20th century, a somewhat different form was identified in Africa; it was found mostly among young men and children and was generally more lethal than the European type.
In the past, Kaposi’s sarcoma was a rare disease in the United States, affecting mostly recipients of kidney transplants or others with reduced immunity. This situation changed drastically with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. Within a few years, nearly half of homosexual men who were infected with the AIDS virus also had this form of cancer. Given the pattern of the disease in Africa and its prevalence among homosexual men with AIDS, some experts believe that this aggressive form of KS. is a sexually transmitted disease that spreads more readily among persons with lowered immunity. This theory is bolstered by research indicating a type of herpes virus may cause Kaposi’s sarcoma. In its European form, KS. develops slowly, with an average survival rate for patients of 10 to 15 years. Otherwise, this cancer progresses rapidly and the outlook is poor, especially if it occurs along with AIDS or another condition that lowers immunity. The skin lesions themselves are painless, but they are often accompanied by widespread swelling, or edema, caused by blocked lymph channels. Other symptoms of Kaposi’s sarcoma include low-grade fever, and difficulty swallowing or breathing if there are internal lesions.
Other Causes of Skin Lesions
Other types of skin cancer can bring about disfiguring lesions. Certain blood clotting disorders can produce bruises that resemble Kaposi’s sarcoma patches and nodules.
Diagnostic Studies And Procedures
The appearance of painless purple or red skin patches or nodules raises the suspicion of Kaposi’s sarcoma, especially among high risk groups, such as male homosexuals. A biopsy of the skin lesions will confirm the diagnosis. The task then is to classify the disease into one of the following categories: Classic, or European, which progresses slowly and is confined to the legs for a number of years. African, typically an aggressive disease affecting children and adult males. Immunosuppressive-related, which occurs mostly among transplant patients who must take drugs that weaken the immune system to prevent rejection of the donor organ. AIDS related, or epidemic, which affects mostly HIV positive males and progresses rapidly.
Treatment varies according to the type of disease. The classic and African forms are usually treated with anti cancer drugs, especially vinblastine (Velban), which is given alone or in combination with vincristine (Oncovin and others). Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and other chemotherapy agents have also produced good results. Care is needed when using a combination of anticancer drugs, however, as some of them suppress immunity. An HIV positive patient with only a few lesions may be treated mostly with interferon or the antiviral drug AZT, both of which are used to slow the progression of AIDS. Radiation therapy might also be used; it reduces edema and improves general appearance as well. Experimental treatments are available to many Kaposi’s sarcoma patients, especially those who have not been helped by standard therapies.
[ Read: How To Protect Against Skin Cancer ]
A growing number of studies show that using alternative therapies to bolster the immune system increases survival among Kaposi’s sarcoma patients. The greatest benefits are noted with visualization, imagery, meditation, and other relaxation techniques that increase the production of endorphins. These are natural body chemicals that are thought to boost immunity in addition to elevating mood and dulling pain perception.
Persons undergoing cancer chemotherapy or radiation treatments may be able to reduce nausea by pressing on a point or the inner wrist .
Regular exercise may help reduce the swelling from blocked lymph channels. If Kaposi’s sarcoma is a component of AIDS, a support group of other patients with similar problems can provide valuable insight and suggestions on coping with the disease. A consultation with a cosmetician experienced in working with people who have disfiguring skin lesions can be helpful. Numerous skin products are formulated to cover KS. lesions, especially on the face.