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Gender Discrimination Hampers Women’s Cancer Care, Says Report

Sexism limits access to cancer care for women, while gender-specific risk factors go unnoticed, study finds

Sexism is hampering women’s cancer care, according to a new report.

Academics from various fields have argued that gender discrimination limits cancer care for women, while potentially carcinogenic products such as alcohol and tobacco are being marketed directly towards them.

Moreover, there is growing evidence linking commercial products predominately used by women to higher cancer risk, such as breast implants, skin lighteners and hair relaxers.

However, the experts found information on women’s health focuses on reproductive and maternal issues rather than cancer.

As a result, women are missing the opportunity to avoid cancer triggers. They cited a study that found just 19 percent of women who attended a breast cancer screening knew alcohol is a major risk factor.

The polymath team, writing in the Lancet, believes 1.5 million women could avoid prematurely dying of cancer if they eliminate their exposure to risk factors, or by getting an early diagnosis PHOTO BY TIMA MIROSHNICHENKO/PEXELS 

The polymath team, writing in the Lancet, believes 1.5 million women could avoid prematurely dying of cancer if they eliminate their exposure to risk factors, or by getting an early diagnosis.

In 2020, approximately 1.3 million women of all ages died due to the four major risk factors of cancer: Tobacco, alcohol, obesity and infections.

In light of their findings, researchers are calling for a new feminist approach to cancer care, and arguing sex and gender should be included in all cancer-related policies and guidelines

For the report, the academic journal The Lancet formed a group called the Commission by bringing together scholars of gender studies scholars, human rights, law, economics, social sciences, cancer epidemiology, prevention and treatment, as well as patient advocates.

Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said: “Discussion about cancer in women often focus on ‘women’s cancers’, such as breast and cervical cancer, but about 300,000 women under 70 die each year from lung cancer, and 160,000 from colorectal cancer: two of the top three causes of cancer death among women, globally.

“Furthermore, for the last few decades in many high-income countries, deaths from lung cancer in women have been higher than deaths from breast cancer.

“The tobacco and alcohol industry target marketing of their products specifically at women, we believe it’s time for governments to counteract these actions with gender-specific policies that increase awareness and reduce exposure to these risk factors.”

Gender biases and discrimination can mean women receive sub-optimal healthcare, according to the researchers.

Women with cancer are more likely to report inadequate pain relief than men, according to multiple studies.

The Commission warned that gender division can be intensified when the cancer patient is part of a marginalized ethnic or indigenous group or is LGBTQIA+.

In 2020, approximately 1.3 million women of all ages died due to the four major risk factors of cancer: Tobacco, alcohol, obesity and infections. PHOTO BY KLAUS NIELSEN/PEXELS 

A recent US survey found LGBTQIA+ African American women reported higher stigma than any other group, and the bias was associated with a 2.4-fold increased risk in delays for seeking breast cancer care, versus white, heterosexual cisgender women.

Dr. Verna Vanderpuye senior consultant at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Ghana and co-chair of the Commission said: “While men are at higher risk for most cancer types that develop in both sexes, women have approximately the same burden from all cancers combined, with 48 percent of cancer cases and 44 percent of cancer deaths worldwide occurring in women.

“Of the three million adults diagnosed with cancer under the age of 50 in 2020, two out of three were women.

“Cancer is a leading cause of mortality in women and many die in their prime of life, leaving behind an estimated one million children in 2020 alone.

“There are important factors specific to women which contribute to this substantial global burden – by addressing these through a feminist approach we believe this will reduce the impact of cancer for all.”

The team found that women are less likely to have the financial resources to help cope with the financial toll of cancer.

One study of eight countries in Asia reported three-quarters of women faced catastrophic expenditures in the year following their diagnosis.

It found that 30 percent of their annual household income was spent on cancer-related expenses such as medical costs and complementary medicine.

The team complained that women undertake most of the unpaid caregiving for those with cancer.

They found that in five countries women’s free care for cancer patients ranged from two percent of national health expenditure in Mexico to 3.7 percent of the same in India.

As a result, the Commissioners called for fair and inclusive pay for cancer caregivers given it represents such a substantial amount of the economy.

They would like pay for caregivers to consider its effect on women’s independence and economic potential, rather than just its monetary value.

Professor Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy, Universiti Malaya, Malaysia, and Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Gender norms mean women are often expected to prioritize 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.”

Meanwhile, the Commission argues that there are too few women working in the upper echelons of cancer care.

The Commission found that the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), an organization spanning over 170 countries, there are substantially fewer female leaders in cancer organizations in Asia, Africa and Europe than there are males.

Meanwhile, organisations in North America, South America and Oceania appear to have roughly as many men as women in head roles.

Moreover, women lead 16 percent of the 184 UICC member organizations classified as hospitals, treatment centers, or research institutes.

Carolyn Taylor, Founder and Executive Director of Global Focus on Cancer said: “A key, yet often underestimated, part of the oncology workforce is cancer advocates who are mostly women and represent the population most affected by cancer.

“Policymakers, academic and medical institutions must fully recognize the value of patient advocates, and integrate them into all aspects of the cancer care continuum.

“Advocates should not merely be added to a grant or article out of necessity, but considered as valuable as their clinical counterparts, a meaningful contributor and equal partner, and compensated as such.”

Dr. Shirin Heidari, senior researcher at the Gender Centre at the Geneva Graduate Institute, said a new feminist approach could help everyone.

She said: “Our Commission exposes the asymmetries of power that influence women’s experiences of cancer and makes the recommendations required to advance an intersectional feminist approach that would reduce the impact of cancer for all.

“In a society where women’s autonomy is infringed, it’s imperative that researchers, policymakers, organizations and healthcare providers do all they can to meet women’s diverse and unique needs during their experiences of cancer care.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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