Women are dying of cancer because of sexism in healthcare, a report in The Lancet has suggested.
The analysis says that “unconscious gender bias” and discrimination means that women are too often receiving “sub-optimal care”, with major cancers being missed.
Researchers said that a focus on reproductive and maternal health, and on “women’s cancers” – such as breast and cervical cancer – too often meant prevention and treatment of other types of cancer was neglected. Two thirds of deaths from cancer in patients below the age of 50 are those of women, researchers said, with many dying “in the prime of their life”.
The Lancet commission, called Women, Power and Cancer, calls for a “feminist” approach to medicine, saying that 1.5 million lives a year could be saved by better detection, diagnosis and elimination of risk factors.
A study published alongside the piece found that 24,000 women between 30 and 69 die every year from cancers that could be avoided.
Six in 10 could be prevented by earlier diagnosis or improved lifestyles, while four in 10 could be avoided by better access to good treatment.
The commission brought together scholars of gender studies, 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 past few decades in many high-income countries, deaths from lung cancer in women have been higher than deaths from breast cancer.”
She added that there was a need for policies to increase awareness of such risks.
The report said that too little focus was given to alerting women to the risk factors for cancer. It cited a study that found only 19 per cent of women who attended a breast cancer screening knew that alcohol was a major risk factor.
Researchers also said that women were often served worse than men, even after diagnosis. The authors said: “Sexism within healthcare systems in the form of unconscious gender biases and discrimination can lead to women receiving sub-optimal care. For example, multiple studies have found women with cancer are more likely to report inadequate pain relief and be at greater risk for undertreatment of pain compared to men.”
Dr Ophira Ginsburg, the senior adviser for clinical research at the National Cancer Institute’s Centre for Global Health and co-chair of the commission, said: “The impact of a patriarchal society on women’s experiences of cancer has gone largely unrecognised. 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.”
She added: “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.”%n