Blame it on physiology or the stereotypical image of an Indian woman who chooses to ignore her symptoms for long, the Big C exhibits a clear gender divide. But when it comes to fatalities, the figures turn upside down: more men die due to cancer annually than women.
In all, 5.37 lakh Indian women got cancer in 2012 as against 4.77 lakh men, said the World Cancer Report. The same year, 3.56 lakh men died of the disease in comparison to 3.26 lakh women.
In the past four years, 62-65%of cancer-related insurance claims were for women while it was only between 35-38% for men, said data released by private insurance firm ICICI Lombard. The claims were more for cancers of the cervix and breast, which are, according to the Indian cancer registry, the leading cancer types among women.
The main reasons for the gender divide in cancer are hormones and habits. “Physiologically, women’s cells are exposed to more hormones and more hormonal fluctuations, leading to an increased susceptibility of cell dysplasia (abnormality),” said Dr Boman Dhabar, medical oncologist with Wockhardt Hospital in Mumbai Central.
He believes “oppression of Indian women” leads them to neglect their own health. “There are also socio-economic reasons such as lack of hygiene and toilets that lead to an increased incidence of cervical cancer,” said Dr Dhabar.
Dr Surendra Shastri, who heads the preventive oncology department of Tata Memorial Hospital, had another reason. “There is certainly an increase in the incidence of lifestyle-related cancers, for example breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Moreover, better awareness and detection rates have contributed to the increasing numbers of cancer in women in India.”
His colleague Dr Rajesh Dikshit, who heads the epidemiology department, pointed out that if incidences of breast and cervical cancers are removed, women have a very low and almost negligible incidence of cancer in comparison to men.
“Claims from men are usually limited to oral cavity and lungs, where the root causes are tobacco and occupational exposure to hazardous material such as asbestos and silica. We find men who suffer from these cancers come from classes that primarily stay away from taking any health insurance,” said Amit Bhandari of ICICI Lombard.
Interestingly, data for 2014 from Metropolis Healthcare, a chain of laboratories, shows how different cancer rates are among men and women. Dr Kirti Chadha from Metropolis India said of the 1,151 samples that tested positive for cancer in Mumbai, 214 were of breast cancer alone. “Breast cancer is the most common or largest cancer in our country. This is our finding from each of our laboratories across the country,” she added.
There is an age difference pattern too in cancer’s gender bias. “If you look at age-wise cancer incidence, the peak period for women is 60 while for men it is 70,”said Dikshit.
A 2006 paper from Duke University in US titled, ‘Difference between male and female cancer incidence rates: How can it be explained?”, said the peak of hormonal imbalance in women is between 45 and 55, when the reproductive system ultimately stops functioning. In males, this peak is shifted to 55 and 65.