"Black patients have higher rates of not receiving treatment," said lead author Dr. Adam Olszewski, associate professor of medicine in the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a physician in the Cancer Center of Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I. "Hodgkin lymphoma is generally believed to be highly curable. We have an expectation to cure over 90 percent of early stage patients and even 70-80 percent of quite advanced cases."
Olszewski's study in the journal AIDS, conducted with Dr. Jorge Castillo of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, identified the racial disparity in data from nearly 2,100 cases in the National Cancer Data Base between 2004 and 2012.
Meanwhile, doctors have had a muddy sense of whether HIV-positive people with Hodgkin lymphoma survive the cancer as well as people who are HIV-negative. Many HIV-positive patients didn't tolerate an older treatment regime for the lymphoma, Olszewski said, but chemotherapy treatment has vastly improved in more recent years. While some small studies, particularly in Europe, have found that HIV status makes no difference to survival, observations in the U.S. population suggest that being HIV-positive makes survival less likely.
The new study, the largest to date, may reconcile that conflict. It shows that in the United States the reason people with HIV seem to fare worse with the cancer is because they are less likely to be treated for it.
Importantly, further statistical analysis showed that one of the main risk factors for an HIV-positive person going untreated was being black. Statistically adjusting for possibly confounding factors, HIV-positive blacks were 67 percent more likely than HIV-positive whites to go untreated for the lymphoma. Other risk factors, which are often related to race, were low income and lacking health insurance. Another was being over 60 years of age.
Olszewski acknowledged it's not clear how the racial disparity arises. It could correlate with more advanced or poorly controlled HIV infection. It could also be a lingering assumption that HIV-positive patients (who are increasingly likely to be black) won't tolerate the treatment well. Some patients may be declining treatment, either for HIV (thereby making them seem more vulnerable) or for the lymphoma itself. Another possibility is that the often-related socioeconomic status of being black and poor and uninsured makes it hard for patients to remain connected to care after diagnosis.
For patients who have HIV and Hodgkin lymphoma, treatment can be effective and tolerated, especially when the lymphoma subtype is known, Olszewski said, but doctors should understand that some patients many need extra assistance or attention to ensure they connect with that care.
To date, this study suggests, it's apparent that some people who should get treatment aren't getting it.
Olszewski et al., Outcomes of HIV-associated Hodgkin lymphoma in the era of antiretroviral therapy: analysis of the National Cancer Data Base. AIDS, 2016; doi: 10.1097/QAD.0000000000000986 [Abstract]