How cancer affects men and women differently

November 29, 2017 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

You’ve heard the saying — men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s no secret that men and women are different in more ways than their physical appearance and personality characteristics. Diseases like cancer affect men and women differently, too.

Statistics show 1 in 2 men will develop some form of the disease in his lifetime, compared with 1 in 3 women. Women are most affected by breast, colon, endometrial, lung, cervical, skin and ovarian cancers, and the cancers that most often affect men are prostate, colon, lung and skin cancers.

Oncologists know that men are more likely to develop cancer and women are more likely to survive it. Overall, men with any type of cancer were six percent more likely to die of their disease than women with cancer. This rose to more than 12 percent when comparing men and women with the same cancer type. Scientists have had a hard time determining why, until recently.

A recent study suggests that the differences between the sexes may in part be due to carcinogenic exposures and lifestyle factors like cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol and eating fattier foods — all of which are more prevalent among men.

Take liver cancer, for example. Researchers believe men are almost twice more likely to develop liver cancer than women. This is probably related to heavier alcohol consumption among men, which may also account for a greater incidence of other cancers in men, like head and neck cancer.

The disparity may also be due to fewer doctors’ visits or cancer screenings among men, who tend to avoid medical care more than women. This leads to symptoms going unchecked for longer and cancer being diagnosed in later, more advanced stages in men.

For other cases, the risk of developing cancer can be traced back to the sex hormones contributing to differences in men’s and women’s immune systems, metabolism and general susceptibility to cancer, as well as genetic differences. One study examined 13 different types of cancers associated with males and females. Researchers compared genetics of men’s tumors with women’s and found differences in eight cancers, suggesting a gender connection.

Men and women also differ in how they choose to fight the disease. In 2016, a cancer center in New York discovered that when men and women examine their treatment opens, men are more deliberative, analytical and data driven, while women are more emotional and often choose the most aggressive therapy.

Women also tend to seek guidance from others who have gone through cancer treatment before by turning to their peers for advice. Strong social connections have been linked to greater health. Men often weigh the cost-benefit ratio, take time to consider the options and communicate with their physicians in a matter-of-fact language, but they often have less reliable social networks than women.

Researchers continue to study the effects of cancer in men and women in order to help them make more effective decisions regarding treatment.

Some cancers are unavoidable, but doing what we can to help prevent cancer — by making healthy lifestyle choices, staying on top of symptoms, and getting screened, for starters — is our best defense.

Learn how to do your part to not get cancer.

Learn more about expert cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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