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Cancer in the LGBT Community

Cancer of any type is devastating, particularly the deadliest cancers, like mesothelioma which affects the lining of the lungs. Everyone is vulnerable to developing cancer to some degree, but certain populations have additional risk factors, and that includes the members of the LGBT community. From increased smoking, which is a risk factor for mesothelioma, to being screened for cancer less often, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women carry several more risks for cancer and need to be aware of these to make the best choices for good health.

Risk Factors for Cancer Affect Everyone

Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender may be at risk for developing cancer. Some of these risk factors may be specific to the type of cancer, but others are more general. Everyone needs to be aware of these risk factors because many of them can be changed to reduce the likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer. Some cannot be changed, such as genetics, but making lifestyle changes can go a long way toward reducing the risk. Risk factors for cancer that can affect anyone include:

  • Age. Most people get diagnosed with cancer over the age of 65 because most cancers develop over many decades. You cannot change your age, but as you get older you can take better care of your health.
  • Lifestyle habits. A very important factor that can be controlled by each individual is related to lifestyle. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, excessive sun exposure, poor diet, and carrying extra weight are all lifestyle habits that generally increase the risk of developing cancer and that can be changed.
  • Genetics and family history. Family history is an important risk factor over which no one has any control. Having family members with cancer does not guarantee you will also have cancer, but for some types of cancer it does increase the risk.
  • Environment. Environmental factors that increase the risk of cancer include being exposed to certain chemicals or living with exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Medical conditions. Some conditions make you more likely to develop cancer, such as ulcerative colitis, which increases the risk of colon cancer.

While anyone may have or be affected by these cancer risk factors, members of the LGBT community are also more likely to have specific or additional risk factors. It is important to be aware of these and to take charge of your health to lower your risk.

Smoking and Cancer

Lung cancer is a common and deadly type of cancer and smoking is the leading cause in 80 percent of cases of lung cancer deaths. Studies show that gay and bisexual men are more likely to smoke than heterosexual men and that lesbians and bisexual women are nearly twice as likely as heterosexual women to smoke. Transgender men and women are also more likely to smoke.

Smoking puts you at risk for lung cancer, but also other types of cancer, including colorectal cancer and cervical cancer. It also causes other health problems and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, bronchitis, and emphysema. Perhaps the biggest and most important lifestyle change anyone can make to improve their health is to quit smoking or never stop, but also be aware of secondhand smoke and try to avoid it.

Increased Breast Cancer Risk in Gay Women

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, but lesbian and bisexual women may have additional risk factors for it. Simply being a woman and aging are considered risk factors for breast cancer, as is having a family member with this type of cancer. Additionally, women who have not had children, who have not breast fed a baby, and who are older when they have a first child are at an increased risk for breast cancer.

These additional factors are more likely to affect gay and bisexual women. This means that women in the LGBT community should take more precautions and be aware of the added risk. Talk to your doctor about what you need to do, such as what age to begin breast cancer screenings or mammograms and performing self-evaluations at home.

Increased Cancer Risk from HPV

HPV, the human papilloma virus, is a sexually transmitted infection that causes genital or anal warts and can affect men and women of any sexual orientation. Anyone who is sexually active may contract HPV. However, the risk of contracting it is greater in anyone who engages in anal sex. Contracting HPV does not mean you will develop cancer, but it does increase the risk of anal cancer and cervical cancer. Gay and bisexual men are 17 percent more likely than heterosexual men to develop anal cancer.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for men who have sex with other men, up to the age of 26. Condoms do not always protect against the transmission of the disease, so limiting sex partners is also a way to reduce the risk of developing HPV. It is recommended that all women have a pap smear with an HPV test every five years.

Other Factors Associated with Increased Cancer Risk

In addition to the specific types of cancers that men and women in the LGBT Community may be at a greater risk for, there are other factors that can impact cancer rates less directly. For instance, lesbians are more likely than heterosexual women to be obese and to be physically inactive. These are lifestyle habits or deficits that impact overall health and increase the risk of cancer in general. Lesbian are also less likely to visit the doctor for regular screenings that can lead to lifestyle changes or early cancer diagnoses.

Barriers to Care

In addition to the extra risk factors that some LGBT men and women face, they also face barriers to getting preventative health care, cancer screenings, and other types of medical care. Studies have found that gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women receive less health care than heterosexual, cisgender men and women, and that includes fewer cancer screenings. Some of the reported barriers to care include:

  • Less health care coverage. Many plans don’t cover partners of unmarried people, so gay or bisexual women or men may be left out of a partner’s workplace coverage and get less care as a result.
  • Bad experiences. Men and women in the LGBT community report having had bad experiences with health care providers, which leads to skipping or delaying appointments and screenings.
  • Fear of discrimination. Sometimes, when gay, bisexual, or transgender men or women do visit the doctor, they are reluctant to talk about sexuality because of a fear of being discriminated against.
  • Lack of training in care providers. Even when LGBT members do attempt to get health care and are open about their sexual activities, health care providers may be inadequately trained or experienced in providing appropriate care for these patients.

Men and women of the LGBT community, like anyone else, carry certain risk factors for being diagnosed with cancer. Some of these cannot be changed or controlled, but many of them can. If you are a member of the community, know your risk factors, make lifestyle changes that will reduce those risks, and find a doctor or health care provider who will be open to your specific health care needs.

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