Tens of thousands of women die unnecessarily from cancer each year in the UK, report finds

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Tens of thousands of women are dying from preventable cancers in the UK each year, according to a new report on gender inequalities in the disease.

Academics performed a global analysis on premature deaths from cancer among people aged 30 to 69.

When looking specifically at the UK, academics found that every year 24,000 women in this age bracket die from cancer which can be avoided.

Six out of these 10 premature cancer deaths among women in the UK can be averted through prevention and earlier diagnoses, according to the international team of academics.

The other four in ten deaths could be avoided through improving access to timely and quality treatment, the team found.

They also said risk factors and causes of cancer in women are poorly understood and are under-recognised.

For example, only 19% of women attending breast cancer screening in the UK are aware that alcohol is a risk factor for the disease.

Smoking, high body weight and drinking alcohol are among preventable risk factors for women in the UK, they said.

The authors said there is a large impact of women dying in their prime of life – impacting family, community and society.

For instance, there were more than 5,000 children who became an orphan in 2020 alone due to their mother dying from cancer, the authors said.

Overall, they found some 2.3 million women die prematurely from cancer each year in the 185 countries studied.

Some 1.5 million deaths could be averted through prevention or early detection, and 800,000 deaths could be prevented if all women everywhere could access gold standard cancer care, according to a new study published in the journal The Lancet Global Health.

It comes as a Lancet Commission report examined the impact of cancer on women.

Highlighting gender bias across cancer care, the researchers said women can face a “myriad of factors” which can “restrict women’s rights and opportunities to avoid modifiable cancer risks and impede their ability to seek and obtain a prompt diagnosis and quality cancer care”.

The authors said that “patriarchy dominates cancer care, research and policy making” as they called for sex and gender to be included in all cancer-related policies and guidelines.

The report also found:

  • Cancer is one of the leading causes of premature mortality among women but the authors said: “Women’s healthcare is often focused on reproductive and maternal health whereas cancer is deprioritised"

  • Unpaid caregiving linked to cancer is largely undertaken by women

  • Around the world, women are more likely to have fewer financial resources than men to help cope with cancer-related financial challenges

  • Within the cancer workforces, women are under-represented in leadership roles

  • Women in the cancer workforce report frequent and severe experiences of gender-based discrimination, including bullying and sexual harassment.

The commission called for a new “feminist agenda” for cancer care to eliminate gender inequality.

“The impact of a patriarchal society on women’s experiences of cancer has gone largely unrecognised,” said Dr Ophira Ginsburg, senior adviser for clinical research at the National Cancer Institute’s Centre for Global Health and co-chair of the commission.

“Globally, women’s health is often focused on reproductive and maternal health, aligned with narrow anti-feminist definitions of women’s value and roles in society, while cancer remains wholly under-represented.

“Our commission highlights that gender inequalities significantly impact women’s experiences with cancer. To address this, we need cancer to be seen as a priority issue in women’s health and call for the immediate introduction of a feminist approach to cancer.”

Co-author Professor Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy, from University Malaya and Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Gender norms mean women are often expected to prioritise the needs of their families at the expense of their own health, sometimes leading to the postponement of seeking healthcare.

“This can be exacerbated as gender norms also exclude men from participating in childcare in many settings, meaning it’s hard for a mother to find childcare while they seek care for their own health needs.”

Dr Isabelle Soerjomataram, deputy head of the Cancer Surveillance Branch at the International Agency for Research on Cancer and co-chairwoman of the Lancet Commission on Women, Power, and Cancer added: “Greater investments in cancer prevention programmes can reduce the prevalence of key risk factors for cancer, and increased coverage of vaccination alongside early diagnosis and screening linked to timely treatment can and must address the current cancer inequalities that are seen worldwide.”

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