Sex differences in cancer mechanisms

We now know that cancer is many different diseases, with great variation even within a single histological subtype. With the current emphasis on developing personalized approaches to cancer treatment, it is astonishing that we have not yet systematically incorporated the biology of sex differences into our paradigms for laboratory and clinical cancer research. While some sex differences in cancer arise through the actions of circulating sex hormones, other sex differences are independent of estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone levels. Instead, these differences are the result of sexual differentiation, a process that involves genetic and epigenetic mechanisms, in addition to acute sex hormone actions. Sexual differentiation begins with fertilization and continues beyond menopause. It affects virtually every body system, resulting in marked sex differences in such areas as growth, lifespan, metabolism, and immunity, all of which can impact on cancer progression, treatment response, and survival. These organismal level differences have correlates at the cellular level, and thus, males and females can fundamentally differ in their protections and vulnerabilities to cancer, from cellular transformation through all stages of progression, spread, and response to treatment.