Women with cancer are “structurally marginalised”

Women with cancer are “structurally marginalised”
  • Lancet report reveals women with cancer experience “overlapping forms of discrimination”
  • It also finds that women are more likely than men to face “financial catastrophe” when diagnosed with cancer
  • Scientists call for greater diversity at leadership level to create better cancer care for women

Scientists from leading world institutions are calling for greater diversity in the cancer workforce, to address social inequality in cancer prevention and treatment. 

The Lancet Commission’s Women, Power, and Cancer report, issued in December 2023, reveals how women are subject to what it describes as “overlapping forms of discrimination, due to age, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status, that render them structurally marginalised.”

Global cancer statistics show that there were an estimated 18.1 million cancer cases around the world in 2020. Of these, 9.3 million cases were in men and 8.8 million were women. However, and despite the plethora of research illustrating that men are more likely to develop cancer than women, scientists have expressed concern that cancer affects women in many complex ways and, as a result, they carry the burden of the healthcare system involved in cancer prevention and treatment.

Experts involved in the Lancet’s report and scientists from the oncology community recently gathered at a conference at the University of Sharjah in the UAE to discuss its findings. The experts noted that women worldwide bear a profound burden not only when stricken with cancer, but also in providing cancer healthcare, stating that bringing about a positive change will require greater diversity at leadership level. “We cannot make a change unless we have diverse groups of people involved,” Dr Deborah Mukherji said at the event, adding that the Lancet Commission’s report constituted “a guide for what can really work where there is a will, where there is action, and where there is a positive attitude.” 

Women in the cancer workforce

Dr Mukherji, a Commissioner at the Lancet Commission for Women and Cancer, said it was important women have a say in how to address the challenges they face. “Women have less power and autonomy in decision making,” she stated. “Women are more likely than men to risk financial catastrophe when diagnosed with cancer. Women in the cancer workforce experience frequent gender-based discrimination, including bullying and sexual harassment.” 

Additionally, the cancer workforce has a high proportion of unpaid caregivers who are predominantly female. The experts cited the Lancet Commission report to show how the dynamics of the cancer treatment workforce disproportionately affected women since their numbers as cancer healthcare workers and healthcare professionals were higher than their male counterparts. “Even though a majority of the cancer workforce are women, a small minority of them hold leadership positions, and even those in leadership positions are less likely to hold positions where they are financially responsible for budgets,” said Dr Mukherji. 

Emphasising the importance of empowering women in oncology research and practice, Professor Humaid Al Shamsi, founder and director of the Medical Oncology Service at Burjeel Medical City, said, “There are multiple barriers that we need to address. When it comes to empowering women in research, we have to first acknowledge that the workforce in oncology globally or [at] GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) level needs more female oncologists. We have to support them to be part of this workforce.

“We need to look at how we can improve oncology practices led by women in the UAE. We do have different awards that support women, we do have other activities involving women to be part of this discussion. But to empower them in research, we need to empower them first to be part of the workforce.”

The Lancet Commission report comes at a time when calls for intersectional feminist approaches to healthcare are rising. Key findings from the report underscored significant gender inequalities impacting women’s risks, experiences, and outcomes. The report states  that proactive measures could avert 1.5 million deaths from cancer globally through primary prevention and early detection. 

Attendees at the symposium adopted a series of recommendations outlined by the Lancet Commission, among them co-creating accessible and responsive health systems offering quality cancer care for women, and developing policies to prevent gender-based harassment and discrimination in the workforce. It concluded with a call to action emphasising that a collective effort was essential to address the intersection of gender, power, and cancer on a global scale.

Ifath Arwah


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