Are Women More Prone To Cancer Than Men?

Written by Reshma Pathare on Wed, 16 November 2022


For many decades, it has been seen that cancer in men is more common as compared to women. The reason behind this phenomenon has puzzled many scientists and oncologists alike. In 2017, a study group comprising experts from Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT delved into this aspect and found that some 'tumour suppressor genes escape X-chromosome inactivation in tumour cells from female patients, and are thus more highly expressed in females than in males.

Male vs female

Since females have two X chromosomes, they thus get a double dose of protection as compared to males who have only a single X chromosome. Further, basic differences in the metabolic pathways of men and women i.e., what chemical reactions occur in the male and female cell during metabolism, has been studied for a substantial impact on the presence and development of cancer in the human body.

The male body favours carbohydrate and amino acid metabolism, and the female body favours fatty acid metabolism. The difference in the way their bodies utilise the nutrition it gets, and the mitochondrial activity their cells have also makes men more susceptible to the disease than women.

On a simpler note, heavier body weight, smoking tobacco and allied substances, lesser physical activity, and lesser readiness to seek medical care have been other documented causes that make men more prone to cancer than women.

Are women more likely to get cancer now?

While men have been more prone to cancer all this while, the sands are shifting now. Sample this.

  • Cancer deaths in Asia (58.3%) and Africa (7.2%) are higher than the levels of incidence (49.3% and 5.7%, respectively)
  • As per a 2020 report, the overall incidence of cancer was higher in women of Africa (6.9%) as compared to men (4.7%).
  • 41.2% of South-East Asian women were diagnosed with breast cancer by 2020. The incidence of cancer of cervix-uteri stood at 17.8% for this group.
  • Women smokers die at twice the rate from breast cancer, as women who never smoke.
  • Obesity is known to increase the risk of endometrial cancer in women by 2-7 times.
  • Apart from being a common cause of cervical cancer, HPVs are also an important cause of vaginal cancer (75%) and vulvar cancer (70%).

It is alarming to see how fast the gap between men and women vis-à-vis cancer is closing up.

The World Health Organisation has reported that 2/5th of all diagnosed cancers are preventable, if due attention is paid to diet, smoking, and infections.

While women are susceptible to almost the same cancers as men, except for that of the prostate, breast cancer and cervical cancer are two of the deadliest versions that are claiming maximum for women around the world.

The Globocan 2020 report avers that globally, breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer, with its estimated new cases standing at 11.7% among all the variants. Death rates for breast and cervical cancer have also been on the rise. The same report shows that while the incidence rate of cancer in Asian men (49.9%) was higher than that in women (48.6%), the gap is minuscule and thus alarming, to say the least.

Factors leading to the rising of cancer in women

As mentioned in the WHO studies, three primary factors that are detrimental for women in terms of becoming cancer-prone are dietary changes, smoking, and infections. Let us have a closer look at how and why these factors are becoming causal to the problem:

1. Smoking (increased use of tobacco & related products)

The World Health Organisation reports that the gap between men and women smokers is closing at a rapid rate, especially with younger women smoking in equal measure as younger boys.

Psycho-social conditioning, wrong notions of prestige and emancipation, and even more wrong notions about weight loss and smoking are some main reasons behind women lighting up the cancer stick more than before. Even if a woman is not smoking actively, her exposure to passive smoking also complicates health problems. Apart from smoking, women from low- and middle-income countries regularly consume tobacco in varied forms. Tobacco leads to around 1.5 million female deaths every year around the world.

Exposure to and consumption of cigarettes and other tobacco-related products has hugely increased the risk of women getting afflicted by breast cancer and cervical cancer, apart from cancers of the oro-facial cavity and lungs. While other tobacco products increase the probability of oro-facial cancers, the harmful chemical substances that get directly deposited in the bloodstream and travel through the body are known to cause genetic mutations and make you more prone to cancer.

The risk is much higher in younger, pre-menopausal women, especially if they start smoking at an earlier age. Passive smoking is known to drive up the risk of breast cancer even in menopausal, senior women. Treatment of breast cancer also develops complications in women smokers, in the form of difficulty in post-surgery healing, damage to lungs from radiation therapy, and susceptibility to blood clots.

Apart from breast cancer, smoking also increases the risk of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is caused mainly due to HPV-16 and HPV-18 infections. A human body becomes vulnerable to infections when its immunity goes down. Smoking causes the human body to deplete its immunity and thus makes women prone to getting precancerous cervical lesions or even, cervical cancer. Toxic substances from cigarettes find their way to the cervical mucus and damage the genes in cervical cells. These damaged genes are unable to fight HPV infections, thus also causing cervical cancer.

2. Dietary and lifestyle changes

The fast-paced times we live in today, have led to people looking for quick-fix alternatives in terms of food choices. However, quick-fix foods are not necessarily healthy or safe.

Processed foods, fried foods, refined food products, alcohol, and canned/tinned foods all sound the warning bell for developing cancers. While women are usually more conscious than men about their eating habits, there's a rise in women consuming the aforementioned harmful foods, thus increasing their risk of cancer. For instance, carcinogens released during the processing of meat can make you prone to stomach and colorectal cancer.

Inflammation and oxidative stress caused by consumption of fried and refined foods lead to the development of cancerous cells that especially affect the endometrium, ovaries and breasts in a woman.

Canned or ready-to-make foods contain a chemical named Bisphenol A (BPA), which when dissolved in food can lead to DNA alterations and cancer.

3. Obesity and cancer

Obesity is another lurking danger that causes cancer. Sedentary lifestyles, less exercise, coupled with consumption of junk foods and alcohol causes a spike in Body Mass Index (BMI), which in turn is known to cause many types of cancers.

Obese women can become twice as much prone to endometrial cancer as normal-weight women. This number jumps to seven times in the case of extremely obese women. Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are also seen more in obese women.

You can take a quick check with our BMI Calculator.

Chronic low-level infections that arise due to obesity are a main reason for this phenomenon. Also, fat tissue produces excessive amount of oestrogen, thus leading to enhanced risk of gynaecologic cancers like ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer. Insulin resistance and altered immune response are other fallouts of obesity, which then lead to development of various cancers.

4. Infections and lag in timely detection

The third important cause of cancer is infections arising out of various viruses. There are around ten types of viruses that can cause various cancers. For e.g., Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), Human Papillomaviruses (HPVs), Lymphoma Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1) and Merkel Cell Polyomavirus (MCPyV) among others.

These viruses cause cancers by either disrupting the signalling required for healthy cell growth, or, causing chronic inflammation, or, weakening the immune system. HPV infections commonly lead to STDs like genital warts. However, HPV-16 and HPV-18 are riskier for women as they lead to precancerous cervical lesions and cervical cancer.

The good news is that cervical cancer is the only cancer that has FDA-approved screening tests available. Presence of HPV infections are best detected with routine and timely screening tests, the simplest amongst these being the Pap Smear Test. Sexually-active women between the ages of 21-65 years are advised to get a Pap Smear test done every three years, to weed out the presence of a lurking cervical cancer, among other things. HPV vaccines that can be administered from the age of 9 to 45 years, are an effective way to stop HPV infections damaging your body.

Ignorance and embarrassment about the screening procedure have known to serve as barriers that prevent women, especially from the lower socio-economic strata, from getting Pap Smears done. A concerted effort in raising awareness levels among them, can lead to much lesser incidence of cervical cancer, as well as other cancers caused by infectious viruses.

Thus, as we see, cancer is burgeoning in various forms to encompass both the genders in its deadly midst. As the gender-gap vis-à-vis cancer becomes smaller with time, it is imperative that women take their susceptibility to cancer seriously and get themselves screened and checked via annual health checks and other methods well in time.


Reshma Pathare

Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare has been a self-employed media professional since 1999. Starting off as a Freelance Journalist for Times of India Thane Plus, Reshma went onto write for more than 45 national and international publications including Times of India, New Woman, Femina, Indian Express, The Hindu, BBC Good Homes and many more. While her forte has been lifestyle writing, she is equally proficient in writing health articles. Her health articles have been published in Health International (Dubai), New Woman, Femina, and Mother & Baby.

Apart from being a journalist, Reshma also works as a copy-editor for self-publishing houses and academic journals.

She is an award-winning bi-lingual translator with more than 12 books published in her name.

She has been a Visiting Faculty Member for post-graduate department of mass media at MET College (Mumbai) and Welingkar WeSchool (Mumbai).

She has worked as a Consumer Marketing Insights Researcher for global organizations like CEB Iconoculture (USA) and Gartner (USA).

Consolidating her multifarious skills in the media, in 2021, Reshma launched her own boutique media agency called Talking Turkey Communications, which specializes in content writing, editing, and translation.

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  1. The Scientist - Why Is Cancer More Common in Men Than in Women?
  2. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health -Sex differences in cancer mechanisms
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