Marking Pride Month: Meet Patient Advocate Tony Burns

June 23, 2021
portrait of tony burns


To mark Pride Month this June, we talk with cancer survivor and patient advocate Tony Burns. Tony is a peer mentor and coordinator with Whitman-Walker Health, a leading nonprofit community health center in Washington, D.C., that is committed to meeting the health care needs of LGBTQ+ individuals. His role includes advocacy work for people with HIV. Tony, who has been living with HIV for 30 years, is also a founding mentor of the health center’s +1 Peer Mentor Program.

In this Q&A, we learn about the native Washingtonian’s personal experience with cancer. Both his mother and his uncle passed away from cancer, and 2 of Tony’s sisters are cancer survivors. A routine screening exam led to his own cancer diagnosis at an early stage.

Tony also talks with us about health inequities in the LGBTQ+ community and shares ways we can work to overcome them.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your personal experience with cancer.

My sister and myself were diagnosed the same year with different types of cancer, and we were treated at the George Washington University Hospital, where we received cancer care navigation. I was treated with 2 cycles of chemotherapy and 33 sessions of radiation, 5 days a week for 6 weeks. There was a time when you would have the type of cancer I had, and this type of treatment was not available. I am so grateful, and I will use the words of my leading oncologist at the time. He told me, on one of my initial sessions with him: “This cancer was very early. We start on a scale from 0 to 4, and you were almost at a 1.” He said, “I think we are going to be able to cure you.”

That’s been 5 years ago.

I want to say this: What if I had not had those routine [screening] exams? That’s why it is so important, particularly with minority communities, that they have the health care they need and are educated to the point where they keep their routine exams. That’s why we need education to inform the public that these are things you should be up on. Routine exams are very important.

"Because of the stigma attached to sexual orientation among our communities who have been marginalized, our minority communities, we see them not being able, for myriad reasons, to go to the doctor on the regular." 

Recent research tells us that the LGBTQ+ community faces numerous cancer disparities and has a higher risk for some cancers. In your own work, what cancer health inequities have you observed in the LGBTQ+ community?

In women we see cervical cancer, and we see lung cancer among women and men who smoke. And for men we see anal cancer, to name a few. We also see LGBT people coming in at the later stages of cancer — say, for instance, a trans man who still has ovaries and doesn’t feel comfortable going to a doctor because, outwardly, he appears to be male. And so, what goes under the radar is taking care of that part down there. So that leads to cervical cancer. With trans women we see those same things.

Because of the stigma attached to sexual orientation among our communities who have been marginalized, our minority communities, we see them not being able, for myriad reasons, to go to the doctor on the regular. And by the time they go, those cancers are often in the later stages.

What are some ways we can work to overcome these disparities?

It takes a team of health care professionals who are compassionate, who are inclusive. It takes members of the community to have some courage and self-love to stay on top of their health as best they can — that’s scary sometimes — but to go to the doctor on the regular.

You have to partner with folks who have experience, who are trained, who are inclusive and passionate. Health care is a human right. We need people who are willing to be passionate and loving and caring to get these stories out there. It takes a village. It will not happen overnight, but it’s a process. How do we eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

"The courage that LGBTQ people exhibit can show our family, and give them a deeper dive into, what our lives have been like."

This year, as we mark Pride Month, the FDA sponsored the first-ever National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week from June 19-23. What do these 2 commemorations mean to you?

As it relates to Pride Month, what comes to mind is that we have come a long way as LGBT folk. I’m so grateful that I have lived to see the day where we can be out and proud. A mentor and a good friend of mine was there the night of [the] Stonewall [Uprising]. He told me what it was like. You couldn’t imagine. So now — in New York, D.C., Atlanta — we get to gather in public without fear of being beaten and arrested for who we choose to love. That’s real important.

Let’s connect the black and brown families who are queer and let’s enter cancer in the mix. The courage that LGBTQ people exhibit can show our family, and give them a deeper dive into, what our lives have been like. And if they are able to love us through that, it will be a revelation for them and we can learn from each other.

Hear more about Tony’s story in his interview with Whitman-Walker Health

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Earlier this year, Tony graciously accepted an invitation to serve on the community engagement advisory council for the Cancer Support Community’s initiative to open a location in the nation’s capital. Learn more about our work to address health inequities, especially in Washington, D.C.