According to recent studies, women have a one in three chance of developing some form of cancer during their lifetime, while men have a one in two chance. Does this mean cancer has a bias toward males? Not necessarily. Instead, experts believe a variety of factors may be at least partially responsible for the difference. For instance, on the whole, men have been traditionally known to be heavier smokers than women, and researchers have confirmed that tobacco use either directly causes or contributes to the development of many types of cancer, including lung cancer, head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer and bladder cancer.
What’s more, the incidence of cervical cancer, a common female-specific malignancy, has been steadily declining for years. This is mainly due to the widespread use of the Pap test, a highly effective screening tool that can detect precancerous cells in a woman’s cervix, allowing them to be removed or otherwise treated before they progress into cancer. On the other hand, the incidence of prostate cancer, a common male-specific malignancy, is rising. With that said, many prostate cancer cases can be effectively treated and even cured.
Other factors related to the difference in cancer incidence among women and men include the following:
Some types of cancer only affect women
Tumors that develop in the female reproductive system—which consists of the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, vagina and vulva—affect women exclusively. Collectively known as gynecologic cancers, these malignancies include:
- Uterine (endometrial) cancer
- Fallopian tube cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Although breast cancer affects both women and men, it is much more common in women. In fact, it is one of the most frequently diagnosed types of cancer in women (second only to skin cancer).
Some cancer risk factors only pertain to women
Several cancer risk factors affect women exclusively, including:
- Early-onset menstruation (before age 12)
- Never becoming pregnant
- Never bearing children
- Never breastfeeding
- Giving birth for the first time after age 30
- Late-onset menopause (after age 52)
- Estrogen replacement therapy for menopause symptoms
- Use of tamoxifen to treat breast cancer, which can function like estrogen in the uterus (and therefore doesn’t affect men in the same way)
- Use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a hormone prescribed many years ago to pregnant women to help prevent miscarriage
Some cancer symptoms are more likely to be ignored by women
Because women are accustomed to bleeding and experiencing hormonal changes during their menstrual cycle, they are more likely than men to ignore certain warning signs of cancer, such as:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding and spotting
- Bloody stool
- Stomach pain, cramping and bloating
- Breast changes, including fullness and swelling
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Skin changes
Some side effects of cancer and its treatment only affect women
Certain treatments for gynecologic cancers can affect a woman’s fertility. For instance, a surgical procedure may involve the removal of some or all of a women’s reproductive organs, while chemotherapy may affect the ability of the ovaries to produce estrogen and release eggs. A surgical procedure to remove the vulva, including the inner and outer lips and the clitoris, can affect a woman’s ability to become sexually aroused.
Other side effects that are unique to women include:
- Vaginal dryness
- Vaginal atrophy
- Vaginal inflammation and tightening
- Pain during vaginal penetration
Additionally, women are more likely than men to experience body image issues relating to the effects of cancer and its treatment, such as hair loss, surgical scarring and mastectomy (surgical removal of the breasts).
Talk with an expert at Moffitt Cancer Center
If you are interested in further exploring how cancer and its treatment can affect women and men differently, you can rapidly connect with an expert at Moffitt Cancer Center. To request an appointment, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. As our patient, you will be a top priority of a cancer center that delivers nationally-ranked care in new and transformative ways. We know that every day counts after a cancer diagnosis, and we will support you with compassionate care every step of the way.