We know that summer has arrived when we begin to see rainbow flags everywhere! From storefront windows to Facebook profile pictures, Pride aptly marks that time of the year when we’re most free and the future looks brightest: saying goodbye to school; looking forward to vacation, and making the most of the longest days of the year.
And so, Pride got us thinking… We know different communities are disproportionately impacted by breast cancer and other diseases in different ways. Are there differences in breast cancer risks for women of the LGBTQIA+ community? We started doing research and found, well, not much. Literally, the Cancer Journal for Clinicians found “no published data” on breast cancer prevalence in queer women.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT QUEER WOMEN
What we did find were studies claiming that lifestyle factors like smoking, drinking, and being overweight, were more common among queer women, and therefore increased their breast cancer risk. However, is this just an assumption about the lifestyles of queer women?
The answer is likely found within the experience of living as a queer person in a society that still discriminates against queer people. In order to cope with the stress of facing prejudice studies suggest that lesbians and bisexual women are more likely to drink more alcohol, smoke more, and generally not maintain their weight compared to their straight counterparts. Combined with the risk factor that they are less likely to have biological kids, all of these choices comprise a “cluster of risk factors,” which could more than double a queer woman’s chance of breast cancer.
WHY QUEER WOMEN GENERALLY VISIT THEIR DOCTOR LESS
Given that these risk factor assumptions about lesbians and bisexual women aren’t being interrogated well among these few cancer studies that exist in which they are even acknowledged, it is clear that the real issue is navigating the healthcare system as a queer person.
The American Cancer Society attempts to highlight this problem: “Studies have found that lesbians and bisexual women get less routine health care than other women, including colon, breast, and cervical cancer screening tests,” citing “fear of discrimination” and “negative experiences with healthcare providers” as reasons.
In the UK, the National LGBT Partnership discovered that half of the lesbian and bisexual women they surveyed had never had a pap smear, with many of them reporting that their doctors said it was unnecessary unless they were having sex with men (which is not true, as the American Cancer Society states that anyone with a cervix who is sexually active is at risk of cervical cancer).
Women who only have sex with women are typically less likely to visit their OBGYN, as they tend to not explore contraceptive options; however, regular pap smears and wellness exams that include breast examinations are still vital to maintaining one’s health regardless of with whom they’re having sex. With lesbian and queer women generally visiting their doctors less for exams, they are unfortunately getting their breasts checked enough, either.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT QUEER BODIES
Considering how there are medical professionals giving out inaccurate advice to queer women, it is sadly not surprising that there is a lot of misinformation regarding the health of trans people as well. Trans men are still at risk for breast cancer even after breast removal and thus should still regularly have breast exams (breast cancer in cis men, while rare, still occurs).
Another barrier holding queer women back from receiving proper health care is the fact that many insurance policies do not cover unmarried partners (this likely also holds true for queer men and gender-nonconforming people). In general, the inaccessibility of affordable health insurance compounded with the aforementioned reasons that queer people are less likely to go to the doctor greatly hinders LGBTQIA+ people’s ability to get proper medical attention.
BE YOUR OWN HEALTH ADVOCATE
While there are thankfully steps that we can take towards caring for our bodies in the comfort and privacy of our own homes (all the good stuff we talk to you about: eating well, exercising, meditating, avoiding toxic body care and household products, etc.). Checking yourself monthly and knowing what is “normal” for your body is so important for both queer and straight women alike. We are all our own health advocate!
Being able and comfortable to go to your doctor is crucial. Although it is clear that drastic improvements in the healthcare system need to be made in order to better welcome and accommodate queer women. We hope that some of these aforementioned tools can help queer women better navigate current medical spaces. Everyone deserves access to fair and nondiscriminatory healthcare!
The bottom line: cancer doesn’t discriminate according to the identity of the person or people with whom you are sexually intimate. Regardless of whether or not you use contraceptives, getting checked and knowing what is “normal” for your body, as well as implementing healthy preventative measures in daily life are essential to getting to know and taking care of your body.