The rate of anal cancer is unacceptably high in HIV-positive gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.  But did you know that women are also at risk for anal cancer?

Women living with HIV (WLHIV) and women who are immunocompromised have a greater risk for developing cancers, in particular HPV (Human Papillomavirus) related cancers.

HIV, chemotherapy, taking prednisone, and autoimmune disorders can all have an effect on our immune systems. Some autoimmune disorders are more common in women than in men, for genetic reasons. Some examples of autoimmune conditions are:

  • Lupus
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Celiac disease
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Certain strains of HPV can lead to pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions in various parts of the body if the virus is not cleared by the immune system. The most common cancers that HPV causes are cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and throat cancers.

So while screening for anal cancer is often only thought to be important for gay men or men living with HIV, it’s also important for WLHIV and other immunocompromised women to have regular Digital Ano-Rectal Examinations (DAREs). In fact, in a study of 251 women participating in the Women Interagency HIV Study (WIHS), 26% of HIV-positive women had symptoms of anal pre-cancer. The risk of anal and other HPV-related cancer increases with lower CD4 levels, or when HIV is not treated immediately.

This increased risk for HPV-related cancer is another important reason to encourage women to get tested so we know our HIV status. We know that women in Australia are often diagnosed with HIV later than men. On average, women living with HIV in Australia had unknowingly been living with HIV for four years prior to their diagnosis. Having an untreated HIV infection for years can cause significant damage to an immune system, and therefore increases the risk for other illnesses like cancer. These ‘late diagnoses’ can be prevented if we change the status quo, and as women, demand that we are offered HIV tests at regular sexual health appointments.

When we are informed we are empowered, and empowered women empower women!

If you have any questions or concerns or want to talk to a peer, you can call the Treatment Officers at Positive Life on (02) 9206-2177, 1800 245 677 (freecall) or email contact@positivelife.org.au

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