Women More Likely To Have Severe Side Effects From Cancer Treatment

Women More Likely To Have Severe Side Effects From Cancer Treatment

Women are 34% more likely to have severe side effects during and after cancer treatment than men.
Mar 23, 2022.

Women are 34% more likely to have severe side effects during and after cancer treatment than men, according to a study.

The research was published online on Feb. 4, 2022, by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read “Sex Differences in Risk of Severe Adverse Events in Patients Receiving Immunotherapy, Targeted Therapy, or Chemotherapy in Cancer Clinical Trials.”


About the study

The researchers looked at information from 23,296 people diagnosed with different cancers who participated in one of 202 phase II and phase III clinical trials done by the SWOG Cancer Research Network between 1980 and 2019:

  • 8,838 were women

  • 14,458 were men

  • 17,417 people received chemotherapy

  • 3,560 people received targeted therapy

  • 2,319 people received immunotherapy

  • 34.7% of the people were ages 65 or older

  • 25.6% of the people were considered obese

  • about 86% of the people were white and about 9% were Black

The researchers did not include clinical trials that looked at what they considered sex-specific or sex-dominant cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer.

The researchers identified gastrointestinal cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia as the most common cancers in the study:

  • 26.1% of the people were diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer

  • 20.5% of the people were diagnosed with lung cancer

  • 12.1% of the people were diagnosed with leukemia

The researchers found that 64.6% of all the people in the study had at least one severe side effect.

Overall, women were 34% more likely to have a severe side effect than men. The researchers looked at each type of treatment and found:

  • women had a consistently higher risk of having a severe side effect than men

  • women who received immunotherapy had the greatest increase in risk and were 49% more
    likely to have a severe side effect than men 

Women also were 25% more likely to have five or more severe side effects than men.

The researchers offered the following theories:

  • Women and men usually have different body sizes. It may be that women receive a relatively larger dose of medicine.

  • Women’s and men’s bodies may respond differently to medicines, and the medicines may move through their bodies in different ways. For example, research has found that women don’t clear the chemotherapy medicine fluorouracil from their bodies the same way as men.

  • Women and men may perceive side effect symptoms differently.

“If confirmed, our findings suggest that underlying mechanisms may result in generalized worse toxicity outcomes for women, with or without corresponding survival improvements or detriments. Therefore, more awareness of symptom differences or reporting differences in women versus men is needed,” the researchers wrote.


What this means for you

Although this study did not look at sex-specific cancers, there is still information that may help you if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Nearly all cancer medicines cause side effects, some of them severe.

If you’re having side effects, it’s very important to tell a member of your breast cancer care team. Treatments for side effects, as well as complementary therapies — such as mindfulness meditation or Reiki — may be able to help you.

You can also ask your primary care doctor to refer you to someone who specializes in the issues you might be experiencing.

Learn more about treatment side effects and how to manage them.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

— Last updated on July 14, 2022, 4:32 PM

Reviewed by 1 medical adviser
Brian Wojciechowski, MD
Crozer Health System, Philadelphia area, PA
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