Why women with cancer are needlessly dying

Around 800,000 women worldwide are dying ‘needlessly’ of cancer every year, according to Women, power, and cancer: A Lancet Commission, which reveals how patients are dying simply because they are denied optimal care.

The startling report says another 1.5 million deaths could be avoided through primary prevention or early detection strategies.

Citing gender inequality and discrimination as limiting women’s chances to avoid cancer risks, health experts have called for what they term a ‘feminist approach’. This approach would “challenge the prevailing asymmetries of power in relation to cancer in three key domains” says the report.

Those domains would be decision making, knowledge, and economics.

‘Women’s cancers’ versus ‘women with cancer’

The report identifies “unequal power dynamics” across society globally as a chief contributor to many deaths. These dynamics have “resounding negative impacts” on how women experience cancer prevention and treatment.

One noted aspect was a skewed focus on ‘women’s cancers’, such as breast and cervical cancer. But there are many ‘women with cancer’, whose cancers affected other parts of the body. These include lung and colorectal cancer, which are among the top three causes of death, researchers said.

Dr Isabelle Soerjomataram, a co-chair of the commission which compiled the report, gave further context to this.

“For the last few decades in many high-income countries, deaths from lung cancer in women have been higher than deaths from breast cancer,” she says.

“About 300,000 women under 70 die each year from lung cancer, and 160,000 from colorectal cancer. This makes them two of the top three causes of cancer death among women, globally.”

This misconception about ‘women’s cancers’ can be very serious in terms of research. Women are under-represented in therapeutic lung cancer trials. They represent only 39 per cent of trial participants. In immunotherapy trials, the proportion of women is lower still: only 30 per cent.

Inequality does not only apply to trials. Doctors and other caregivers often unwittingly play a part.

The neglect of women with lung cancer also applies to their treatment by caregivers. Women presenting with potential symptoms of lung cancer are often not suspected of the disease by their primary care providers, causing potential delays in diagnosis.

Women, power, and cancer: A Lancet Commission

How to address the inequalities?

A defining outcome of the report is two lists. One identifies the report’s 10 key findings, the other outlines 10 priority actions. These actions will “advance a more nuanced, inclusive, and gender transformative approach to the cancer field”.

The recommendations include:

  • ensuring data on sex, gender, and other sociodemographic factors are routinely collected in cancer health statistics, publicly reported, and updated
  • developing, strengthening, and enforcing laws and policies that reduce exposures to known cancer risks for girls and women.

Are you a woman who has suffered from a cancer that is not a women’s cancer? How would you describe the treatment process?  Have your say the comments section below.

Also read: Women urged to check blood pressure – here’s what you need to know

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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