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New Survey Reveals Significant Gender Gap In Cancer Wellbeing

The wellbeing of New Zealand women living with cancer is significantly worse than that of Kiwi men diagnosed with the same life-threatening disease.

Look Good Feel Better general manager Clare O’Higgins

That’s according to a new study into the wellbeing of Kiwis living with cancer carried out by cancer support charity Look Good Feel Better.

The 2023 NZ Cancer Wellbeing Survey measured the wellbeing of more than 2,000 New Zealanders including cancer sufferers, cancer supporters, and people not currently affected by cancer. The survey, which will be carried out annually, is the first of its kind in Aotearoa.

Conducted by specialist research company Ipsos, the study used the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5 Wellbeing Index to measure mental wellbeing.

The 2023 survey also revealed that the wellbeing of New Zealanders diagnosed with cancer is better than that of their carers or of people without cancer.

“We were quite surprised to learn that people living with cancer and dealing with all of the stresses and challenges that come with their diagnosis and illness are more positive about their wellbeing than the general population and their friends and whānau who are looking after them,” says Look Good Feel Better general manager Clare O’Higgins.

“However, when we talked to the people that are attending our cancer support programmes we can understand why this may be the case.

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“People with cancer tend to be more grateful for every day and worry less about the smaller things than people not living with this life-threatening illness. Further, cancer carers tend to carry the burden of their loved one’s illness as well as managing their own busy lives,” says Ms O’Higgins.

When it comes to reasons for women cancer sufferers’ poorer wellbeing compared to males in a similar situation, Ms O’Higgins says that anecdotal feedback from cancer sufferers who participate in Look Good Feel Better programmes is that often women feel they are running parallel lives.

“Women going through cancer often feel the pressure of trying to continue to lead their normal life juggling work, family and friends, as well managing all that comes with their diagnosis including symptoms, treatment and medical appointments. They often tend to put others needs ahead of their own.”

Wellbeing scores also differ by age for people living with cancer and those caring for them. Those aged 65 years and older have the highest wellbeing scores, while those aged between 45 and 54 years have the lowest.

Some of the most important factors contributing to positive wellbeing identified in the research were physical activity, nutrition, and spiritual support.

“As more research into cancer is conducted, we are finding evidence that connection with others, a sense of community and movement can be beneficial to people living with cancer. Mindfulness and meditation are playing an increasingly important role in helping create positive mental health,” says Ms O’Higgins.

As a result of the NZ Cancer Wellbeing Study, Look Good Feel Better – which offers free support programmes for people with cancer – is developing new programmes to directly address these needs.

“Earlier this year we introduced an online chair yoga class that has fast become one of our most popular classes, not only for people living with cancer, but also their friends and whānau, who join in as well,” says Ms O’Higgins.

“Off the back of the research results, we are now planning more classes like this that focus on the ‘feel better’ aspect of our services, as well as extending our programmes to cancer supporters.”

Look Good Feel Better intends to carry out the NZ Cancer Wellbeing Survey on an annual basis so the wellbeing of Kiwis with cancer can be measured over time.

“We think it’s really important to understand how people with cancer in New Zealand are faring, not just from a medical standpoint, but from a mental health one. We have found huge value in the results, which have demonstrated what people with cancer need to thrive and what we can best do to support them,” says Ms O’Higgins.

“We know mental health impacts physical health and recovery and vice versa, so it’s critical the right support is offered and can be easily accessed by everyone who needs it.”

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