Why Queer Women Should Be Concerned about Breast Health
(Lead Image of Ericka Hart)
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Everywhere you look you will see the iconic pink ribbon to bring awareness. When one donates that dollar or purchases that item in support, how much thought is actually given to the person in need of that support? One may think of their own mother, sisters, daughters and friends. What if these women you loved were lesbians, bisexual or women who engage in relations primarily with women?
In an article for The Advocate, “The Lesbian Breast Cancer Link”, Liz Margolies, executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network says: “Cancer disproportionately affects lesbians, but not because their bodies are any different from those of heterosexual women.”
“Lesbians are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to get screened for fear of culturally incompetent health care providers, and butch women may have an especially difficult time paying attention to their breasts.” - The Lesbian Breast Cancer Link
Margolies continues “the increased risk we have are a result of behaviors from the stigma of being gender and sexual minorities.” However research is limited to the reasons behind why women that love women have increased findings of breast cancer. Major reporting centers such as the National Health Interview Survey did not start collecting sexual orientation data until 2013 in combination with the other questions in order to work towards eliminating health inequalities among the queer populations.
The hard facts, according to The National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in every 8 women will affected be by breast cancer. That means over 252,000 women per year will be diagnosed. Of those 252,000 over 40,000 will not receive help in time to survive breast cancer and will die from it each year. Unfortunately the sexual orientation of these women affects everything from how they are medically treated, the community resources available to them and it may be a defining factor to contracting the disease in the first place.
In gauging the rates of breast cancer in the lesbian population one must look at the risk factors involved in contracting breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there are several lifestyle related risk factors that increase breast cancer, these include alcohol consumption, not having children or having children later in life, being overweight/obese, not physically active and participating in Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). While these risk factors are not exclusive to lesbians they seem to play themselves out more in the communities of women that love women. For reasons due to stress and stigma of sexual orientation queer women may engage in heavy drinking, unhealthy eating patterns and have higher rates of depression leading to lack of motivation for health related activities. Many queer women also have higher instances of using hormone therapies for body modification and child bearing purposes. The American Cancer Society also suggest that women who love women have increased barriers when it comes to health care. These barriers include: low rates of health insurance, fear of discrimination and negative experiences with the health care providers.
Combining barriers to healthcare with the cluster of risk factors can affect the women we love. The Mayo Clinic, released a list of preventative measures in it’s article: Breast Cancer Prevention: How to reduce your risk. These include limiting alcohol consumption, don’t smoke, manage your weight and use caution when engaging in hormone therapies. When it comes to barriers in health care Liz Margolies also weighs in about inconsistency in health care.
“Until we can bring our whole selves into treatment, we either lie about who we are or we leave [ the doctor’s office] and never come back.”
In order to have the most forthcoming relationship with our medical practitioner, we must be able to express taboo topics such as sexuality and allow that discussion to lead us into the best health care possible for our unique situation and lifestyles. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) has put together a list of providers that are welcoming, affirming and open to discussing the aspect of sexuality as related to disease prevention.
For more on how to navigate breast cancer and live authentically as a woman who love women, The National LGBT Cancer Network offers a variety of tools and resources, including how to screen for breast cancer, and notice risk. They also provide a list of facilities that offer safe, affordable and affirming care to the LGBT population diagnosed with cancer and free online support groups for survivors of cancer with in the community.
Let’s make breast health a priority.