Discrimination against women increases cancer risk: 800.000 deaths a year could be prevented

Photo: Pexels / Anna Tarazevich

Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in women. In addition, millions of lives could be saved if women had better access to prevention and treatment of the disease. Experts advocate a feminist approach to the problem.

Health experts call for 'feminist approach' to cancer to tackle inequalities as research reveals 800.000 women worldwide die needlessly every year because they are denied optimal care, writes The Guardian. 

Worldwide, cancer is one of the three leading causes of premature death in women under 70 years of age. Of the 2,3 million women in that group who die every year as a result of cancer, about 1,5 million lives can be saved, the new analysis claims - but only on the condition that the process of early detection of the disease is improved, i.e. eliminate the main risks that lead to cancer.

An additional 800.000 deaths could be prevented if all women had access to optimal cancer treatment, reports "Deutsche Welle."

The discussion about cancer in women - judging by the allegations of The Lancet Commission, which aims to make recommendations to policy-makers who make decisions about the organization of health and social care systems – often concentrates on 'women's cancers', such as breast or cervical cancer.

But every year about 300.000 women under the age of 70 die as a result of lung cancer, and 160.000 from colon cancer. In recent decades, in many high-income countries, the number of deaths from lung cancer in women has been higher than from the consequences of breast cancer, says Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram, deputy head of the Division of Cancer Surveillance at the International research agency. on Cancer (IARC). She is also one of the presidents of Lancet.

A feminist approach

The main reason why women have such poor access to preventive measures, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, above all, is gender inequality.

The Lancet Commission therefore advocates a new "feminist agenda" in the treatment of cancer, with the aim of eliminating that inequality between the sexes, that is, discrimination against women.

In the health systems, it is argued, in the treatment of cancer and in the research of this disease, the needs of women must be taken into account much more intensively, in order to reduce the risk of cancer in the female population at the global level.

During the preparation of the new report "Women, power, cancer: A Lancet Commission" (Women, power, and cancer: A Lancet Commission), a very diverse, international team of experts in areas such as human rights, gender equality, law, economics, sociology, cancer prevention and treatment, that is, people who represented the interests of patients.

"All over the world, the issue of women's health often focuses on their reproductive and maternal health, which is closely related to the anti-feminist definition of the value and role of women in society. At the same time, the issue of cancer is significantly underrepresented," says Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, lead advisor for clinical research at the Cancer Institute of the Center for Global Health from the United States.

Risk factors for cancer

Judging by the statements of the Lancet Commission, the risk factors for the occurrence of cancer in women must be more precisely investigated, taking into account that they are less known than the risk factors when it comes to the occurrence of cancer in the male population.

There are numerous indications that there is some association between specific products used mainly by women, for example, to bleach the skin or to "iron" the hair, and the increased risk of cancer. Many women are completely unaware of the numerous risk factors that can be relatively easily eliminated: about 1,3 million women of all age groups died in 2020 as a result of the four most important risk factors affecting cancer: tobacco, alcohol, obesity and infections. Many women simply underestimate these factors.

Thus, a 2019 study concluded that only 19 percent of women in Great Britain who participated in a program of preventive examinations aimed at early detection of cancer even knew that one of the main factors influencing the occurrence of breast cancer is - the alcohol.

"We are of the opinion that the time has come for governments to act with a policy that is based on gender specificities, a policy that strengthens awareness of those risk factors, that is, reduces women's exposure to those factors," says Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram.

What about the needs of women?

Considering that many women in the world are discriminated against in terms of their chances of education or employment, they often do not have the financial resources needed to pay for the expensive treatments, i.e. cancer treatment procedures.

And here is another problem: since men generally do not take the main burden of caring for children, women suffering from cancer are often not able to take care of their own health, says one of the authors of the study, prof. Nirmala Bu-Pathi, from the University of Malaya and Queen's University Belfast.

"Because of gender role norms, women are often expected to put the needs of their families before their own needs or even at the expense of their own health, which sometimes makes it difficult for them to use health services."

Women as unpaid carers

Discriminatory gender roles are also responsible for the fact that mostly women take on the role of unpaid caregivers of people suffering from cancer, mostly without proper valorization by society.

That's why the Lancet Commission calls for the introduction of fairer and more inclusive standards in terms of wages for the care of patients who have cancer.

Discrimination against women in many societies, according to the Lancet, is also the reason why the rise of women in the profession of leading positions in cancer research, cancer policy or the attitude towards cancer in practice is "inhibited". According to their opinion, this is one of the main reasons why today there are so few preventive measures "tailored" to the needs of women, that is, cancer treatment measures adapted to the female population.

This also applies to hospitals, cancer treatment centers or research institutes, in which, globally, women have a leading role in only 16 percent of cases.

Strengthening the rights of women

The Commission, in addition, advocates for the respect of gender-specific topics in all areas of politics that refer to the attitude towards cancer, i.e. the guidelines related to that topic - in order to respond in a fair way to the needs and wishes of all women .

In addition, the Commission states, strategies are needed to strengthen women's awareness of risk factors, that is, cancer symptoms, as well as improvements in the field of equal access to treatments for early recognition of diseases and cancer diagnoses. All this could be ensured in a better way and with equal representation of women in management positions, adds the study of the Lancet Commission.



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