What to Know About Chemotherapy for Kaposi Sarcoma

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs attack and kill cells that divide quickly, including cancer cells and some normal cells. For this treatment, you will see a medical oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in using drugs to treat cancer.

Types of drugs you may take

Even though Kaposi sarcoma (KS) is a type of cancer, some of the most important drugs used to help treat or control it are not actually chemotherapy drugs. An essential element of the therapy of KS in people with AIDS is highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, which consists of drugs that attack HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Suppressing the AIDS virus and allowing the immune system to be restored limits the development and progression of KS and may cause the tumor to shrink in some cases. In addition, it helps other treatments, particularly chemotherapy, to be more effective. HAART has changed the expected course of KS in those who are living with HIV such that the majority of patients suffering from it do not die from progressive KS. In people who develop KS because their immune system is suppressed for other reasons, such as people who have had an organ transplant, changing the immune-suppressing drugs they are receiving may have the same effect. 

If chemotherapy is needed to treat someone with KS, drugs called liposomal anthracyclines are usually the first ones used. These drugs are inside tiny fat bubbles called liposomes. The fat bubbles help the drugs work effectively and help prevent side effects.

The currently approved liposomal anthracyclines are Doxil (doxorubicin) and DaunoXome (daunorubicin).

They produce these good and long-lasting responses in many people:

  • Each of these drugs shrinks tumors.

  • They reduce swelling caused by blocked lymph nodes called lymphedema.

  • They reduce stomach and intestinal problems, pain, and lesions.

These are some other common chemotherapy drugs used to treat KS:

  • Taxol (paclitaxel)

  • Navelbine (vinorelbine)

  • Oncovin (vincristine)

  • Velban (vinblastine)

  • VePesid (etoposide)

  • Blenoxane (bleomycin)

How you take the drugs

You may get one of these drugs alone, or more than one combined.

Most chemotherapy drugs go into your bloodstream. In that way, they can reach every part of your body. However, if you have just a few lesions, your doctor can inject the drugs Velban (vinblastine) or Sotradecol (sodium tetradecyl sulfate) right into the lesions. This is called intralesional chemotherapy. This is very effective in lesions found in the mouth. With this treatment, the drugs do not travel through your body, so you may have fewer side effects.

Potential side effects from chemotherapy

Side effects of chemotherapy that goes throughout your body depend on the type of drugs you take and for how long you take them. Since chemotherapy drugs lower white blood cell counts, you can have a higher risk of infection. These are some other possible side effects of chemotherapy:

  • Appetite loss

  • Bleeding

  • Bruising

  • Hair loss

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Mouth sores

  • Tiredness

  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet

Most side effects go away when you stop taking chemotherapy. Drugs can reduce the side effects and help you recover from chemotherapy more quickly. Some side effects of chemotherapy may be increased by the antiretroviral therapies used to treat AIDS, but these must be weighed against the clear benefits these drugs usually provide in helping treat this disease.