Cancer is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in developing economies, with an estimated 70% of deaths due to cancer occurring in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). In 2019, women made up nearly half of these deaths, and according to new research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, two thirds of cancer deaths under 50 happen to women. The majority of cervical and breast cancer deaths are premature and preventable, especially in LMICs where there are multiple barriers to accurate and timely diagnosis and access to quality care.
Effectively addressing the burden and impact of cancer among women is crucial to global development, because women play essential roles in their families and communities. Maternal death from any cause has lasting consequences for families, including increased risk of child mortality, reduced educational attainment for children, economic strain due to lost household income, and family fragmentation. Even when women survive cancer, the economic hardship associated with treatment can be significant.
In addition to the challenges for women who have cancer, women also fulfill vital caregiving roles for other cancer sufferers. Women take on much of the caregiving burden for ill family members, a time-consuming and unpaid responsibility. In fact, it’s estimated that women as caregivers contribute around US$3 trillion globally in uncompensated healthcare annually. Women also make up 67% of the workforce in the health and social sectors, meaning that they are on the frontlines of providing screening, diagnosis, and palliative care to patients with cancer.
Despite the myriad ways women’s lives are affected by cancer, standard calculations of the global economic cost of cancer do not include the value of many of their household and societal functions. This means less attention and resources are devoted to support women in seeking screening and care for themselves and in providing the skills, supplies, and support for their caregiving roles. Accurate data on the burden and impact of cancer is essential to the design of effective policies and programs to prevent and treat these conditions. If the impact of cancers on women is undervalued, the interventions implemented will not sufficiently address their needs.
The question arises: how can we comprehensively value the burden of cancer on women?
The Lancet Commission on Women and Cancer, co-chaired by Dr. Ophira Ginsburg and Dr. Verna Vanderpuye, is tasked with investigating the intersections of gender and cancer, with an emphasis on inequality, sociopolitical power, and other social determinants. We are proud to be working with Dr. Devaki Nambiar, Dr. Nirmala Bhoo Pathy, and Dr. Enrique Soto on a feminist approach to cancer economics which is deliberately inclusive and focused on disparities. We anticipate that our work will change what we measure and how we value the people living with cancer and those who care for them. Ultimately, we hope that the Commission’s recommendations will inform global and national policy makers on equitable approaches to address cancer in LMICs.
Below, we outline three pathways through which women are impacted by cancer that the Commission will examine to answer the question raised.