Why are men more likely to develop cancer than women?

In this week’s edition of the Cancer Pro blog, we’re going to take a look at why is it that men are more likely to develop cancer during their lives than women.

Current statistics show that men have about a one in two chance of developing cancer during their lifetime, while women have a one in three. But, why is the risk for men of developing the disease higher?

In a report compiled by Cancer Research UK, the National Cancer Intelligence Network, Leeds Metropolitan University and the Men’s Health Forum into why men are more likely to develop cancer than women. They found that in keeping with what was happening in the world, in cancers that predominantly affected one sex, men are 40 per cent more likely to die from cancer than women and overall, 16 per cent more likely to get the disease. 

However, when they looked at data from cancers that were common to both men and women, the difference became even more concerning. In this instance, men were 60 per cent more likely to get cancer than women, and 70 per cent more likely to die from it.

These figures are concerning not only for men but for their families too. But why does this difference exist, and what can we do about it?

But why is this the case?

This particular gender gap is mysterious because there appears to be no significant biological reason as to why men should be more susceptible to many types of cancer than women. 

However, a study carried in the US, suggested that it could be down to the fact that females have an extra copy of specific protective genes in their cells, which functions as an additional line of defence against cells’ growing out of control. Though not solely responsible for cancer’s apparent “bias” toward males, the duplicate copies likely account for some of the imbalance.

Biology, lifestyle or the ‘ostrich factor’?

However, experts in the UK felt it could be something much more common and pointed the finger at two possible explanations. Firstly, lifestyle factors. As well as smoking, UK men were before the current pandemic drinking increasing amounts of alcohol, putting on weight, and taking less exercise, and as we know, all of these things are known risk factors for several types of cancer. However, let’s not forget that women are (were) also overindulging in unhealthy behaviour, although not as much, so that’s not the whole story.

Secondly, the report’s authors point the finger at a deeper-rooted issue within the male psyche – the tendency to hide one’s head in the sand when it comes to health matters.

Throughout their lives, women tend to have more frequent contact with health professionals – for example, when seeking contraception or during pregnancy, birth and child-rearing, which provides them with opportunities to discuss any worrying symptoms, and to pick up information about cancer prevention and symptoms.

Also, women’s magazines and blog’s continue to focus on messages about health and cancer awareness. While similar publications and blogs aimed at male health and fitness, don’t seem to have reached the same levels of saturation regarding cancer than have been achieved in the female media market.

Researching the reasons

As Professor David Foreman, information lead at the NCIN puts it stereotypically; men are less likely to go to the doctor if they have early symptoms of cancer, such as a persistent cough, a change in bowel habit or problems with peeing (early signs of lung, bowel and prostate cancer, respectively) and by the time they do it is often far too late. 

Therefore it is vital that we raise awareness of lung, bowel and prostate cancers in men aged 55 and over – a crucial age when it comes to spotting the earliest signs of cancer. Without a shift in attitudes, we’re not going to be able to help more dads, granddads, husbands, brothers and sons to beat cancer.

Is the picture any different in Malaysia?

YES, according to the Malaysia National Cancer Registry Report 2012-2016 that was published at the beginning of this year, more Malaysian girls and women are getting cancer. 

The cancer incidence rates from 2012 to 2016 increased by 2.3 in females, and reduced slightly by 0.8 in males per 100,000 populations, compared to the 2007-2011 period. Of a total of 115,238 new cancer cases that were diagnosed in the same period, 44.7 per cent of patients were males while 55.3 per cent, were females.

The probability of being diagnosed with cancer before the age of 75, (in the absence of other causes of death), was 9.8 for males and 10.8 for females, for the same period, which means that one in nine females and one in 10 males in Malaysia, will get cancer in their lifetime. 

So despite what the picture from around the world is telling us, here in Malaysia, females have a slightly higher risk of contracting cancer when compared to males. Something which needs addressing if we are to reduce the number of mothers, daughters, grandmothers and sisters, we are loosing to cancer.

About Cancer Pro

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