Study Suggests Female Cancer Patients Have Better Outcomes After Treatment, Experience Worse Side Effects

According to a publication from EurekAlert, a recent study helmed by the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust suggests that female cancer patients tend to live slightly longer following treatment than men, but also experience severe side effects at roughly twice the rate.

Differences in Biology

The study, conducted in cooperation with the UK Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Unit at University College London, analyzed data from four large, randomized clinical trials of men and women with esophagus and stomach cancers. Over 3,200 cases were analyzed (3,265 to be exact — 2,668 men and 597 women). All participants received chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove their tumors.

Researchers found that the female participants lived an average five months longer than the men, even when controlling for age. Although participants over 70 years old experienced neutropenia at significantly higher rates, researchers found that cancer-related survival was roughly the same irrespective of age.

Additionally, the team of oncologists found strong evidence suggesting that women are more likely to develop severe side effects from cancer treatment. 10% of the almost 600 women developed serious nausea (versus the 5% of the over 2,500 men). 10% also would experience vomiting episodes (versus 4% of men), and 9% would develop severe diarrhea (4% of men).

The finding begs the question: why do similar cancers and similar treatments yield such dramatically different results between men and women?

Scientists have known for some time just how different cases of cancers can be between individuals. Dr. Avani Athauda, Clinical Research Fellow at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and lead author on the study, says that she and her partners “…plan to further investigate at a genetic level why there might be such differences in how patients benefit from chemotherapy” with differing results.

Cancer’s Diversity a Challenge in Treatment

It’s important to note that the cancers observed in this study are relatively rare. Esophageal and stomach cancers affect about 16,000 people in the United Kingdom annually (or roughly one person in every 4,125). The general observations made in the Royal Marsden study may hold true for esophageal and stomach cancers, but may be less consistently accurate for other types of cancer.

The complexity and unique nature of different cancers is one of the most challenging aspects of cancer treatment. In order to better predict which cancer patients may experience severe side effects from treatment, researchers are following-up on the Royal Marsden study. By examining tissue samples collected from participants’ tumors, they hope to identify new biomarkers that might indicate patients who will struggle with standard treatment.

People often think of drugs and therapy as a fixed solution when in reality the person being treated is as important as the treatment being used. How does our understanding of human biology play a role in developing new therapies? Share your thoughts with Patient Worthy!

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