‘Room for improvement’ in support for women with cancer

women standing in a group depicting a new report on supporting women with cancer

Merck has released the Supporting Women With Cancer report, presenting findings from a global survey of 4585 women across 23 countries.

The survey revealed that only one-in-five (20%) women diagnosed with cancer believe they receive enough support to manage their family responsibilities or fit work around their condition, 45% were aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer prior to diagnosis, and nearly half (47%) had never attended a screening programme.

The results have subsequently indicated there is room for improvement to promote understanding of all cancers and their risk factors, and to increase awareness and access to cancer screening programmes and support services for women. Additionally, a quarter (25%) of women perceived themselves to be more stigmatised than men by their disease.

Designed with input from the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the survey revealed that one-third (34%) of women reported receiving no support at all from their employer following their diagnosis, and less than half (45%) of those of childbearing age said they had been offered family planning advice from their healthcare professional. Compounding the challenges faced, only 42% of the women surveyed had accessed support services, suggesting that awareness of the support and educational resources available to women living with cancer may be low or that such services need to evolve to better fit what women really need.

The survey further showed the need for greater education regarding cancer in women. Many women underestimated the risk factors associated with cancers that are not widely considered ‘women’s cancers’, such as lung and colorectal cancer. Older women, and those in lower- and upper-middle income countries were also found to be less aware overall of the signs and symptoms of cancer prior to their diagnosis, compared to those in high-income countries. The results suggest a greater focus is needed, regardless of income and level of education, to improve women’s understanding and recognition of the signs, symptoms and risk factors of cancer, particularly those of high-risk women.

Early diagnosis of cancer is recognised to increase the chance of successful treatment and the survey highlighted the need for greater awareness and understanding of cancer screening programmes and the role they play. For women who did not attend cancer screening programmes, the three most significant reasons were not taking their symptoms seriously (52%), fearing a diagnosis (38%) and delaying a visit to their healthcare professional due to cost (29%). Women aged 18 to 40 were more likely to face delays in diagnosis (49%) compared to other age groups, mainly due to not taking their symptoms seriously (43%).

The Supporting Women With Cancer programme was conducted in support of the Healthy Women, Health Economies initiative, which brings patients, governments, healthcare professionals, employers and other interested stakeholders together to help improve women’s health — so that they can join, thrive and rise in their communities. Merck is committed to supporting female patients across all aspects of life, including post-diagnosis and treatment, and working with the cancer community to find solutions to turn these insights into meaningful outcomes for women living with cancer. Included in the report are several recommendations on how this could be achieved.