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Thousands of premature cancer deaths in women could have been prevented: researchers

Prevention measures could have stopped nearly seven in 10 premature cancer deaths among women worldwide in 2020, new research has found.

The Lancet Commission on Women, Power, and Cancer, as well as the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), released their findings this week on the issue.

The researchers say 5.3 million adults, between 30 and 69 years old, died prematurely from cancer in 2020 around the world. Of those, 2.3 million were women.

The findings suggest that prevention measures could have stopped roughly two-thirds of those deaths.

"Globally, there are marked inequalities between countries in reaching the target of reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases, including cancer, set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals," Dr. Isabelle Soerjomataram, deputy head of the Cancer Surveillance Branch at IARC and co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Women, Power, and Cancer, said in a news release.

"Greater investments in cancer prevention programmes can reduce the prevalence of key risk factors for cancer, and increased coverage of vaccination alongside early diagnosis and screening linked to timely treatment can and must address the current cancer inequalities that are seen worldwide."

The research found premature deaths from cancer in women were higher in countries with a low Human Development Index (HDI), a United Nations measurement that includes a number of different factors such as standard of living.

Beyond the loss of life, the researchers say an estimated one million children around the world became motherless because of these premature deaths.

"There is rapid societal and economic transition across populations, leading to enormous variation in global cancer patterns," Dr. Freddie Bray, head of the Cancer Surveillance Branch at IARC and a commissioner of the Lancet report, said.

"Although breast cancer remains the most important cause of premature cancer death in women worldwide, new analysis in our commission reveals that cervical cancer ranks second in women in countries with low and medium HDI, whereas lung cancer ranks second in women in countries with high and very high HDI."

The researchers point to four main risk factors that, if addressed, could have prevented almost one-third, or 1.3 million, of all cancer deaths in women of all ages. These include smoking tobacco, alcohol consumption, high body weight and infections.

However, the researchers point to a study that found only 19 per cent of women in the United Kingdom who had been screened for breast cancer were aware that alcohol consumption is a major risk factor.

The analysis also says there is a growing link between some commercial products – such as certain breast implants, skin lighteners and hair relaxers – that may increase a woman's cancer risk.

Then, there is the financial cost, with the researchers citing a study from eight countries in Asia that found a large majority of women with cancer spent 30 per cent or more of their annual household income on expenses such as medical costs and medicine in the year after their diagnosis.

Women, the analysis points out, also are largely the ones who do unpaid caregiving for people with cancer.

Among the solutions the researchers call for is a "new intersectional feminist agenda for cancer care, in which health systems, cancer workforces, and research ecosystems are more inclusive and responsive to the needs and aspirations of all women, whether they are patients, care providers, or researchers, thereby reducing the global burden of cancer."

With files from Avis Favaro Top Stories

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