Across the globe, there resounds a potent and urgent call for transformation in the battle against cancer. Health experts are raising their voices, advocating for a "feminist approach" to cancer care that aims to eradicate inequalities.
A recent report published in The Lancet has shed light on the pressing need for a 'feminist approach' to cancer care, emphasising the elimination of inequalities that have left 800,000 women worldwide needlessly succumbing to this disease each year.
This comprehensive study, encompassing 185 countries, has uncovered a stark reality – gender disparities and discrimination have been instrumental in denying women optimal cancer care, perpetuating inequality, and curtailing progress in cancer research and treatment.
The Global Cancer Gender Divide
Cancer, an indiscriminate predator, has ranked among the top three causes of premature deaths for women in nearly every corner of the world. However, this threat isn't borne equally. Gender inequality and discrimination are formidable obstacles that hinder women's ability to mitigate cancer risks, secure timely diagnoses, and access quality care. A groundbreaking report published in The Lancet, the largest of its kind, examined the relationship between women and cancer across 185 countries, revealing that unequal power dynamics on a global scale have profound and negative effects on how women experience cancer prevention and treatment.
While breast and cervical cancers often steal the limelight in discussions of "women's cancers," it's crucial to recognize that lung and colorectal cancers rank among the top three causes of female cancer-related deaths. Gender disparities aren't limited to patient experiences alone; they also impede women's progress as leaders in cancer research, practice, and policymaking. This perpetuates the lack of women-centred cancer prevention and care, creating a vicious cycle of inequality.
A Global Call to Arms
To address this urgent issue, a diverse and multidisciplinary team of experts from around the world convened. Their areas of expertise spanned gender studies, human rights, law, economics, social sciences, cancer epidemiology, prevention, treatment, and patient advocacy. Together, they undertook an extensive analysis of how women worldwide navigate the landscape of cancer. Their resounding call to action? A new feminist agenda for cancer care that would eradicate gender inequality.
Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, a senior adviser for clinical research at the National Cancer Institute's Centre for Global Health and a co-chair of the commission, underscored the pressing need for change. She noted that, globally, women's health has often been narrowly defined in reproductive and maternal terms, while cancer, a devastating force, remains underrepresented.
This commission's findings lay bare the significant impact of gender inequalities on women's experiences with cancer. The solution? To prioritize cancer as a critical issue in women's health and to immediately introduce a feminist approach to cancer care.
Preventing Premature Deaths
A second study, also published in The Lancet Global Health, delivers yet another grim revelation. In 2020, an estimated 1.5 million premature cancer deaths among women under 70 could have been prevented through the elimination of key risk factors or early detection and diagnosis. This staggering statistic reveals a glimmer of hope within the darkness—a substantial portion of these lives could have been saved through optimal cancer care.
Four major risk factors—tobacco, alcohol, obesity, and infections—loom as major contributors to cancer-related deaths in women. Astonishingly, the burden of cancer caused by these factors remains widely underrecognized. For instance, a study from 2019 uncovered that only 19% of women attending breast cancer screening in the UK were aware of alcohol's significant role as a risk factor for breast cancer. This highlights the urgent need for increased awareness, education, and gender-specific policies to counteract the targeted marketing of harmful products.
Beyond 'Women's Cancers'
It's essential to broaden the discourse surrounding cancer in women. While breast and cervical cancers undoubtedly command attention, lung and colorectal cancers claim a significant share of lives. These two cancers, which rank among the top three causes of cancer death among women worldwide, demand our scrutiny. The tobacco and alcohol industries have aggressively marketed their products to women, necessitating government intervention through gender-specific policies that enhance awareness and reduce exposure to these risk factors.
Moreover, the causes and risk factors for cancer in women remain less well understood compared to those for men. Alarmingly, of the three million adults diagnosed with cancer under the age of 50 in 2020, two-thirds were women. This is a leading cause of mortality in women, leaving an estimated one million children motherless in 2020 alone. Specific factors affecting women contribute significantly to this global burden, underscoring the necessity for a feminist approach that can reduce the impact of cancer for all.
A Path Forward
To counter the adverse effects of gender inequality and revolutionize women's interactions with the cancer healthcare system, the commission puts forth a compelling argument. Sex and gender should be integral components of all cancer-related policies and guidelines. Strategies aimed at increasing women's awareness of cancer risk factors and symptoms, along with providing equitable access to early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, are crucial steps on this transformative journey.
The clarion call for a 'feminist approach' to cancer resonates as an urgent necessity. It's a rallying cry to eliminate gender-based inequalities, save lives needlessly lost, and create a world where women have equal access to optimal cancer care. The recommendations outlined in The Lancet Commission on women, power, and cancer must not remain mere words on paper. By putting sex and gender at the forefront of cancer-related policies and guidelines, we can make strides toward a brighter future—one where women receive the care and support they deserve.
Improved outcomes for women have a ripple effect, benefiting not only households and communities but societies and the world as a whole. It's a cause worth championing, and together, we can rewrite the narrative of women's health in the face of cancer.
Suggested reading: HPV Vaccines And Cervical Cancer Screening: What All Women Must Know