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Are Men More Likely To Develop Leukemia?

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Written by Nyaka Mwanza
Posted on June 8, 2022

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.

Are Men More Likely To Develop All Types of 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:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) affects 6.8 males per 100,000 and 3.5 females per 100,000.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) affects 5.2 males per 100,000 and 3.6 females per 100,000.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) affects 2.5 males per 100,000 and 1.5 females per 100,000.
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) affects 2.0 males per 100,000 and 1.5 females per 100,000.

Sex Differences in Children With Leukemia

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.

Why Are Men More Likely To Develop Leukemia?

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.

Does Leukemia Affect Men Differently?

In general, there are also distinct differences between men and women when it comes to leukemia treatment, prognosis, and survival.

Treatment

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.

Prognosis

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.

Survival

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:

  • Of the more than 11,500 AML deaths, more than 6,600 are male and nearly 5,000 are female.
  • Of the almost 4,500 deaths from CLL, more than 2,600 are male and 1,700 are female.
  • Of the nearly 1,600 deaths from ALL, 900 are male and nearly 700 are female.
  • Of the 1,200-plus deaths from CML, nearly 700 are male, and more than 500 are female.

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.

Reducing Your Risk

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.

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Posted on June 8, 2022
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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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