Gender Inequality’s Impact on Women and Cancer: A Lancet Commission Report

A newly released report by the Lancet Commission highlights the profound effects of gender inequality on women’s experiences with cancer prevention, care, and treatment. Despite similar cancer burdens, women face significant disparities due to unequal power dynamics in society. The report, titled “Women, power, and cancer: A Lancet Commission,” underscores the urgent need for an intersectional feminist approach to address these inequities.

Unequal Gender Dynamics in Cancer Care

The Lancet Commission’s report points out that gender inequality extends beyond the realm of patient care and impacts how women engage with the cancer health system. Women’s contributions in the cancer workforce, where they predominantly serve as unpaid caregivers, are undervalued. Additionally, women are underrepresented in leadership roles within research and policy organizations related to cancer.

The Call for Intersectional Feminism

The Commission calls for an intersectional feminist approach that highlights and challenges existing power imbalances in cancer decision-making, knowledge dissemination, and economics. It emphasizes that cancer ranks among the top three causes of premature death for women in nearly every country.

Potential Lives Saved through Action

The report underscores that the elimination of key risk factors or early detection and diagnosis could potentially save around 1.5 million lives. Furthermore, access to high-quality cancer care could prevent an additional 800,000 deaths among women.

Underestimated Cancer Risk Factors

While tobacco, alcohol, obesity, and infections are major risk factors for cancer, their impact on women’s health is often underestimated. A 2019 study revealed that only 19 percent of women undergoing breast cancer screening in the UK were aware of alcohol’s significant role in breast cancer risk.

Understanding Female-Specific Risk Factors

The Commission stresses the need for a deeper understanding of cancer risk factors specific to women, which are less well-documented compared to those affecting men. Commercial products primarily used by women, such as certain breast implants, skin lighteners, and hair relaxers, have been linked to an increased cancer risk.

Gender Inequality’s Multifaceted Impact

The report highlights that gender inequality and discrimination not only affect women’s ability to avoid cancer risk factors but also hinder their access to timely diagnosis and quality cancer care. Globally, women face disparities in education, employment, and financial resources, complicating their ability to cope with cancer-related financial challenges.

Unpaid Caregiving and Leadership Disparities

Gender inequality has resulted in a predominantly female unpaid caregiving workforce, impeding women’s advancement in leadership positions within cancer research, practice, and policymaking. This perpetuates the absence of women-centered cancer prevention and care.

Sexism in Healthcare Systems

The report reveals that sexism in healthcare systems, manifested as unconscious gender biases and discrimination, can lead to subpar care for women. These biases can be exacerbated when patients belong to marginalized ethnic or indigenous groups or have diverse sexual orientations or gender identities.

Representation in Leadership Roles

In Asia, Africa, and Europe, women’s representation in leadership roles within cancer research and policy organizations remains significantly lower. Globally, only 16 percent of organizations classified as hospitals, treatment centers, or research institutes are led by women among the 184 member organizations of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC).

Addressing Gender Inequality in Cancer

The Commission urges the inclusion of sex and gender considerations in all cancer-related policies and guidelines. These policies must be responsive to the diverse needs and aspirations of all women, whether they are patients, caregivers, or researchers. By acknowledging and addressing the impact of gender inequality, we can transform women’s interactions with the cancer healthcare system for the better.



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