Almost 400,000 people in the United States are living with leukemia or are in remission from some form of the disease. Leukemia affects both men and women, although men tend to be at a higher risk than women. In the U.S., more than 60,000 people will be diagnosed with leukemia this year. Fifty-eight percent of these diagnoses will be made in men, making men about 37 percent more likely than women to develop leukemia.
There are several different forms and subtypes of leukemia, and men seem to be at increased risk for all of them. The most recently available figures show that overall, 18.3 out of every 100,000 men develop leukemia. Women develop leukemia at a rate of 11.1 per 100,000.
For the most common forms of leukemia, diagnoses between the sexes differ at the following rates:
Childhood leukemia comprises about 30 percent of pediatric cancers. It is the most common type of cancer seen in people younger than 15 years of age. Sex-specific differences between male and female children with leukemia are different from those seen among adults.
Rates between male and female pediatric AML cases are the same. Rates of pediatric ALL are slightly higher among males than females. More females than males develop leukemias of all types in the first year of life.
The exact reason why leukemia and several other types of cancer are more common in men than women is still unknown.
Some research indicates that sex-specific hormones such as estrogen protect cancer cells, including leukemia cells. A study conducted by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT revealed that genetic differences between males and females — for instance, differences in chromosomes and the number of genes susceptible to cancer-causing cells — may account for some of the imbalance.
In general, there are also distinct differences between men and women when it comes to leukemia treatment, prognosis, and survival.
Women are at risk of certain treatment-related complications that men are not. These complications include effects on reproductive health (such as premature menopause and delayed fertility or infertility) and secondary cancers including AML. Treatment-associated AML is an often-fatal long-term complication for women who have undergone breast cancer therapies.
There are also several differences in how men and women respond to various cancer treatments. Some treatments, like certain chemotherapy drugs, can cause worse side effects in women than in men. This difference is thought to be due to differences in the way men and women process, absorb, and eliminate drugs from their bodies.
There’s a clear need for scientists to conduct further cancer research to determine the exact workings of these sex-based differences and why they exist. There’s also a need for cancer care teams to pay close attention to the differences between men and women regarding cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Being female increases the chances that your prognosis will be better than if you were male. Males may be more likely to experience relapse after treatment, as well.
In one study, males with childhood ALL relapsed more frequently than females. They were also given a worse prognosis than females with the same diagnosis. Males, particularly pediatric leukemia survivors, were also more likely to develop secondary cancers. Females with CLL, specifically, tended to have less severe cases of leukemia and responded better to treatment than men.
Approximately 23,660 people died from leukemia in 2021. Men are more than twice as likely to die from leukemia than women. Women with CML, especially, have better survival rates than men. The rates of death from the four main types of leukemia are as follows:
Survival rates are also better among females than males in pediatric leukemia.
Researchers don’t know exactly why there are differences between male and female leukemia survival rates. The difference may be related to the female sex hormones and sex-specific genetic differences that result in variations in response to treatment seen between men and women.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to prevent leukemia. In general, however, your risk of developing any type of cancer is reduced by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Make sure to eat a balanced nutritional diet, exercise regularly, and get enough rest.
A person’s sex is just one of several risk factors for leukemia. Leukemia risk factors include genetic factors, environmental factors (like pesticide or benzene exposure or undergoing radiation therapy), and family history. If you have one risk factor, it does not necessarily mean that you will get leukemia. People who have no known risk factors may develop leukemia, and those who have several risk factors often do not develop leukemia. More often than not, doctors can’t say what caused a person’s leukemia or how much a risk factor contributed.
MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. More than 10,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with leukemia.
Have something to add to the conversation? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a discussion on MyLeukemiaTeam.