PRIDE Month: Health Disparities and Care for LGBT Cancer Patients

June 21, 2017

Every June, LGBTQ+ pride month is celebrated with parades and marches across the country. But what does it mean to celebrate, or have “pride” in the LGBTQ+ community? Pride is rejecting discrimination and violence toward people who identify in a non-heteronormative way.

Pride allows the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their diversity, promote dignity and equal rights, and increase their visibility.

One reason to encourage pride and acceptance of this marginalized community is there are health disparities that affect LGBTQ+ populations. The LGBTQ+ community has historically been underrepresented and often faces barriers within the American health care system. Cases of discrimination or harassment, and negative experiences with doctors or nurses in the past may cause LGBT patients to not seek medical attention when a health concern arises.

Studies have shown that the LGBTQ+ community has a higher risk of being diagnosed with lung, breast, cervical, anal, and liver cancers than non-LGBTQ people. outlines some potential explanations as to why this may be due to behaviors that can increase the likelihood of developing cancer, such as higher rates of tobacco and alcohol usage.  

Education around being LGBTQ+ and a cancer patient is growing to support the LGBTQ+ cancer community. For instance, the National LGBT Cancer Network aims to educate and encourage the community about cancer screenings. Their executive director, Liz Margolies says that, “The LGBT community is disproportionately affected by cancer, and few people in the community know that, so this is an education program,” referring to their online campaign, Take Care of That Body. “Part of what keeps people from getting screened is that they don’t know they’re at higher risk, or they can’t find, or believe they can find, a facility they can trust. So we’re providing them with both.”

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) says that research to better understand cancer in the LGBTQ+  community is underway. The AACR reported, “In October [2016], the National Institutes of Health designated sexual and gender minorities a ‘health disparity population’ in need of research attention, citing cancer as an area of concern.” Seeing this issue gain traction in the health care field does give hope to one day closing the health disparities gap, but does not address the present concern of discrimination from doctors’ offices for LGBTQ+ people.

Fear of discrimination or harassment is common among the LGBTQ+ community and becomes a big problem if their doctor or nurse becomes the source of such discrimination. The need for a safe space inside the doctor’s office is critical to the wellbeing of the patient. The sincerity to share confidential information to one’s medical provider is necessary in order to properly tend to the medical needs of the patient. There are a few sources online to help LGBTQ+ patients find pro- LGBTQ+ medical providers to ensure a safe space such as The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA), and the National LGBT Cancer Project.

People with an LGBTQ+ identity are more likely to stay quiet about health issues, mostly due to fear of stigmatization. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 30% of LGBTQ+ adults don’t receive consistent health care services or lack a provider, compared to 10% of heterosexual adults.

Plus, many health care professionals don’t have knowledge or experience with LGBTQ+ individual’s health care needs. Many of these professionals may also have negative opinions about this group, which contribute to biases and discrimination. This means that the quality of health care that LGTBQ+ individuals are receiving may not be as good as the health care of their peers.

In 2015, the Cancer Support Community partnered with Whitman-Walker Health, a nonprofit community health center in Washington, D.C. This nonprofit is committed to meeting the health care needs of LGBTQ+ individuals, and they use CSC’s social and emotional support programs to support this community. Whitman-Walker assures that people can be themselves at their organization. Their health care professionals treat people with dignity, respect, humility, and empathy.

Whitman-Walker’s Mautner Project provides services to LGBTQ+ individuals with cancer. It also provides health education, workshops, and much more to health care professionals in order to encourage the proper treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals.

A safe space for a social network is essential for those that identify as LGBTQ+, and more so for cancer patients. Studies have shown that social relationships may have both adverse and beneficial influences on breast cancer survival, for example.

Take time this June to educate yourself and your peers about LGBTQ+ visibility “so that no one faces cancer alone.

To find more resources please call the Cancer Support Helpline at 1-888-793-9355 or you can find a local CSC or Gilda’s Club affiliate near you.