Every year, around five million people under 70 die of cancer. According to an international study, 2.3 million premature deaths involve women. Avoiding risk factors and getting an early diagnosis could save 1.5 million lives, and optimal medical care could save another 800,000 lives.
“Cancer is one of the leading causes of death and among the top three causes of premature death in women worldwide in almost every country in the world,” according to the just-published “The Lancet Commissions” format of the respected medical journal, which typically focuses extensively on policy-relevant issues. According to a study published concurrently in the journal “The Lancet Global Health,” nearly 5.3 million people will have died prematurely – that is, before the age of 70 – from cancer in 2020. Lifestyle changes could have prevented more than 3.6 million deaths, and more than 1.6 million could have been treated.
Lifestyle factors in women
This is particularly underestimated among women worldwide, according to the report “Women, Power, and Cancer: A Lancet Commission,” in which international experts look in detail at global inequalities related to cancer: “Around 1.3 million women of all ages died in 2020 as a result of the four main risk factors for cancer: tobacco use, alcohol, obesity, and infections. However, too little attention is being paid to this problem of cancer in women.” For example, she said, a 2019 study in the United Kingdom showed that only 19 percent of those women who came in for breast cancer screening knew that alcohol was a significant risk factor for breast cancer.
According to the report, the health care system, medicine and society also often have misconceptions about cancer in women. “Discussions about malignancies in women frequently center on cancers that affect only women, such as breast carcinoma or cervical cancer.” However, approximately 300,000 women under the age of 70 die from lung cancer each year worldwide, in addition to approximately 160,000 women from colorectal cancer: these are two of the three leading causes of cancer death in women worldwide,” Isabelle Soerjomataram, deputy chief of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said in a release.
The epidemiological situation speaks for itself, as Verna Vanderpuye, co-chair of the Lancet Commission that produced the new report, points out: “While men have a higher risk of developing cancers that affect both sexes, women have about the same cancer risk when all malignancies are considered together. Forty-eight percent of all cancers and 44 of all deaths caused by them occur among women. Of the three million adults diagnosed with malignancy under age 50 in 2020, two-thirds were women.”
Too little time for health
The consequences of women’s cancer disadvantage are disastrous. Annually, about one million children worldwide are left half-orphaned after cancer strikes women in young and middle adulthood, according to the report. Globally, women in many regions continue to have poorer access to prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of malignancies, according to the report. This is compounded by social disadvantage, lower income and burdens from family and loved ones. Many cancers in women are diagnosed too late because they often have too little time to care for their health.
The report also addresses other inequalities that are often overlooked. Women also play an underappreciated role in the care of cancer patients. They take on the brunt of caregiving work, which is usually unpaid. The experts emphasized that this is one reason that can prevent women from advancing in cancer research or politics, further fueling the poor care situation for women. More political will is therefore needed to make health systems more equitable and inclusive worldwide. The report lists the ten most important actions for more equity.
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