By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. And whether it’s a friend or family member, nowadays most people know someone who’s been affected by this disease. My first encounter was when my mother was diagnosed years ago. She was extremely fortunate as it was detected at an early stage and with treatment, which included a partial mastectomy, she survived. Unfortunately, many women continue to die from breast cancer—one of the most preventable diseases if detected and treated early enough.
Like most cancers, breast cancer affects people of all races, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class without bias or discrimination. Genetically and physiologically there is nothing different between heterosexual women and lesbians or women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, there is a difference when it comes to external societal factors that can affect and increase the risk of breast cancer and the survival rate for certain groups of women.
The main factors contributing to the discrepancies in breast cancer risk between racial, ethnic, geographic groups of women include lack of health insurance, lack of a regular health care provider, low income and lack of education and awareness about the nature of breast cancer and the advantages of early diagnosis. Without accessing or being able to access preventative care such as regular breast cancer screenings and mammograms the risk of being diagnosed with more advanced breast cancer is much greater and harder to treat.
Research focusing primarily on lesbians and bisexual women with breast cancer is unfortunately not as thorough and conclusive as racial, ethnic and geographic studies. The limited research that has been completed does tend to suggest that in addition to the factors listed above that affect breast cancer awareness and proactivity, there is also a “cluster of risk factors” for lesbians and bisexual women.
According to the National LGBT Cancer Network these risk factors are:
Cigarette smoking: data suggest that lesbians smoke cigarettes at a substantially higher rate than heterosexual women.
Alcohol use: some research reports higher rates of heavy drinking among lesbians than heterosexual women
Obesity: some studies report that lesbians are more likely to be overweight or have a body mass index over 25.
Pregnancy: lesbians are less likely to have biological children before age 30, which would offer some protection against cancer.
In addition to these, lesbians and bisexual women also deal with the stressors of a homophobic and heterocentric culture. Issues such as the level of sensitivity, friendliness and respect from physicians, support groups and the medical environment towards LGBT can undermine the desire to be more open and proactive, and can possibly increase a more lackadaisical attitude is seeking medical attention early on.
Coleen McKinstry is a self-identified lesbian who was diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer on September 12, 2003, when she was 41 yrs old. Stage 3 is when the cancer goes beyond the immediate area of the tumor and has possibly invaded nearby muscle and lymph nodes but hasn’t yet spread out to further organs. Throughout her ordeal, McKinstry had to endure a lumpectomy, a lumpectomy re-excision, port insertion, 8 rounds of chemotherapy, and 35 radiation treatments.
“I definitely did not feel comfortable identifying as a lesbian with breast cancer,” she says. “I felt as though I didn’t quite fit in if that makes sense.”
When my treatments were completed, and I was trying to jump back into my ‘old’ life, I really had a meltdown. I decided it would be good for me to attend a support group and heal with women who were dealing with the same issues I was. I went to 5 support groups before I found one where I felt safe, comfortable, and secure sharing my story.
“I do believe not feeling safe and being discriminated against is what keeps many lesbians from getting their annual screenings and taking care of themselves. Cancer is hard enough though. Trying to juggle the closet would have been way too much for me. We are entitled to the same care as heterosexual women, and we should be proactive in taking care of our bodies. If you are not comfortable with the first healthcare professional you meet, get a second, third, or fourth opinion. Never be afraid to ask for it. Luckily, my healthcare team was aware that I was a lesbian and I never felt any resistance or discrimination from any of them.”
Enduring the psychological, physical and emotional roller coaster ride of being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through treatment can be terrifying. It’s a life changing and transformative experience. McKinstry’s 12th year cancer free anniversary date is October 7th of this year. Reflecting back on her experience, she says:
“Cancer robbed me of my ability to have children. It left me with lymphedema, osteoporosis, and constant arm, breast, and chest pain. It stripped me of my innocence and what I envisioned my future to be. It took so much. But cancer also forced me to dig deep and find the real me. It gave me strength to leave a stress-filled job, to leave my family, my friends, and everything I knew and move across the country to a climate that would help my ailing body feel better. It taught me to slow down and appreciate each day. It showed me how to be kind and patient to myself. It helped me be accepting of everyone for we never know where someone else has been. And it proved to me that I could accomplish anything—no time for self-pity. I often tell people that cancer was a blessing. Not that I would want to endure everything again but it forced me into taking inventory of my life, and to not settle.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For additional information about breast cancer and events locally, go to the American Cancer Society website at www.makingstrideswalk.org or the Susan G. Komen site.