Gay/Bi Women Aren’t Getting Screened For Breast Cancer—And It’s Killing Us

Breast cancer doesn't discriminate—health care shouldn't either.

Gay and bi women are subject to more risk factors for breast cancer than their straight counterparts, but we also face extra barriers to preventative care.

One of the primary reasons: Heterosexual cisgender women generally get screened for breast cancer whiling visiting their OB-GYN for things like birth control, which a lot of women who date women don’t use.

Mixed race woman smiling
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Queer women are also more likely to face discrimination or ignorance in the doctor’s office, making them less inclined to visit a medical provider. They’re also (incorrectly) told they have little risk of contracting STIs, meaning they go in to get tested less.

Medical students still receive little to no training on LGBT-specific health care, so doctors are often unsure how to address the needs of queer women.

A study released in March by the UK’s National LGBT Partnership found that half of all gay/bi women had never had a Pap smear. Many reported being told by doctors it wasn’t necessary unless they were sleeping with men. Not true: Anyone with a cervix should get regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer (And that means trans men, too.)

Nude portrait.

We don’t know how much all of this is impacting the LGBT community, because most of the national cancer registries don’t collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity. That translates to a lack of funding, or even the creation, of community-specific initiatives.

As a result, queer women report lower rates of mammograms, colonoscopies and Pap smears. As a result, cancers are detected much later, when the prognosis is worse, according to the National LGBT Cancer Network.

Lesbian and heterosexual women are not different physiologically or genetically. Therefore, any variations in breast cancer rates most likely result from the stress and stigma of living in a society where homophobia and discrimination continue to impact. The resulting behaviours probably have an effect on cancer risk, which could perhaps even double a lesbian’s chances of developing cancer when taken together. It is important to point out that without proper research, these factors are only theoretical.

We know stress and anxiety from discrimination can impact health, both directly and in encouraging unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking (both of which are more prevalent among lesbians than straight women). In addition, queer women are less likely to get pregnant to full term before 30, another factor in reducing the risk of breast cancer).

Transgender men and women face unique obstacles when it comes to prevention and treatment, “both because our understanding of breast cancer risks for trans people is limited and because most information is framed around the experiences of cisgender women,” according a report Fenway Health.

Nurse helping patient prepare for mammogram in examination room
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Trans women and men receiving hormone therapy may be at increased risk of breast cancer. That’s why, even in a body part that hasn’t been embraced or has been surgically altered, routine screenings are still the best method of prevention.

Breast cancer is a killer, but it doesn’t discriminate: It affects anyone with breast tissue, from straight women to trans men (including those who’ve had top surgery) and even cisgender guys. Our approach to fighting it must not discriminate either.

For additional resources visit the National LGBT Cancer Network, the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Resource Center, and the National Cancer Institute.

For help finding an LGBT-friendly health care provider, visit OutCare or the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association’s provider directory.

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