Women in poverty face far greater cancer risk

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Poor women are three times more likely to contract cervical cancer than those from more affluent backgrounds and are more likely to die from the disease, new British research shows.

Poor women are three times more likely to contract cervical cancer than those from more affluent backgrounds and are more likely to die from the disease, new British research shows.

The poorer a woman is, the more aggressive and faster growing her cancerous tumour is likely to be and thus the less chance she has of surviving, the research, to be published next month in The British Journal of Cancer, shows.

It confirms that the health gap between the rich and the poor is as wide as ever.

The researchers, from Glasgow University, said that a diet lacking in the vitamins found in fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as smoking, could increase the speed at which tumours develop.

A co-author of the report, Professor David Hole, of Glasgow University, said that diet was important in controlling the tumour growth. "Smoking and a lack of Vitamin A and beta carotene, which are found in fruit and vegetables, may be important in controlling the speed at which the tumour grows."

He said tumour growth was found not to be linked with how long someone had had the symptoms of cervical cancer or how large the tumour was when it was detected.

Another co-author , Dr Paul Symonds, a cancer specialist at Leicester Royal Infirmary, said: "The [economic] difference [in cancer rates] is probably because women from more deprived backgrounds often eat less fruit and vegetables and are more likely to smoke. "So the good news is that if women eat a well-balanced diet then they will be more likely to survive cervical cancer."

The research team wanted to establish why some patients receiving treatment for cancer had larger tumours.

It focused on cervical cancer because that does not require immediate surgery and is usually treated through radiotherapy. Over a 20-month period, the tumour growth rates of all cervical cancer patients treated in the west of Scotland with either radiotherapy - 141 - or surgery - 36 - were studied.

Professor Hole said women should have regular smear tests. "The screening programmed has definitely reduced the number of women suffering from early, slow-growing cervical cancers although it doesn't seem to have much of an effect on the more dangerous aggressive tumours," he said.

In Britain, around three-quarters of cervical cancer cases occur in women who have never had a cervical smear or who last had one more than five years previously. A woman's lifetime risk of developing the disease is one in 126, with her chances of having incurable cervical cancer peaking when she is in her late 30s and early 70s.

Just over 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and in 1998, 1,336 died from the disease.

Professor Gordon McVie, the director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "This important work reinforces the campaign's mainmessage - that eating a well-balanced diet with five pieces of fresh fruit or vegetables a day and stopping smoking will help prevent cancer."

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