by Liz Margolies, LCSW
Executive Director, National LGBT Cancer Network
Cancer doesn’t discriminate, as everyone likes to remind us, but the healthcare system that treats cancer patients often does. In addition, the stress and stigma experienced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people often leads to unhealthy behaviors that increase their risk for cancer, like smoking. LGBT people use tobacco at nearly twice the national average. Because of these increased cancer risks, coupled with decreased screening rates and challenges in cancer survivorship, I started the National LGBT Cancer Network 8 years ago.
Why do we need a separate cancer organization for LGBT people when there are hundreds of other huge, well-funded places for cancer survivors? Because, when I ask these organizations what they are doing for the underserved and invisible LGBT community, they usually try to reassure me with, “Don’t worry, our services are meant for everyone.” Things are definitely getting better, but most cancer organizations still do not address the unique needs of LGBT survivors; they don’t include information about cancer’s impact on LGBT sexuality and relationships, and most images on the websites and in their offices show only heterosexual families and couples. As a result, LGBT cancer survivors often feel isolated and wonder if they can come out with the truth about their identities and their lives.
To make a difference in the lives of LGBT people with cancer and those at risk, the National LGBT Cancer Network works on several fronts simultaneously: education, training, advocacy and support. We think of it as a table that needs all four of those legs to stand firmly.
First, we educate the LGBT community about our increased cancer risks and the importance of screening and early detection. In addition to smoking, LGBT people use alcohol at much higher rates. Lesbians are more likely to be overweight and less likely to have had a biological child (which would offer some protection against cancer). Gay men have higher rates of HPV and HIV, both of which also raise the risks for cancer. To encourage screenings, we have a directory on our website of LGBT-friendly free or low cost cancer screening facilities. (If you have places to recommend to us, please send them over.)
At the same time, we train healthcare providers to offer more safe and welcoming care to their LGBT patients. Previous negative experiences and fear of discrimination keep many LGBT people away from the healthcare system, dangerously delaying their cancer diagnoses. We travel everywhere to offer cultural competence trainings to healthcare providers.
Our advocacy work is ongoing, collaborating with cancer organizations and helping them reach out to LGBT survivors. We also advocate for more inclusive research on LGBT cancer risks and survivorship needs.
Recently, the National LGBT Cancer Network began offering online support groups for LGBT cancer survivors. We believe this is the best way to break down the isolation LGBT survivors often feel, especially for those who don’t live in major metropolitan areas. The groups are free, available 24 hours per day and moderated by a licensed clinician. Please help spread the word about them.
The National LGBT Cancer Network has a small but dedicated staff. Please contact us with ideas, questions or requests for information. It takes ALL of us to make a difference in the lives of LGBT cancer survivors and those at risk.
Related: LGBT Medical Care Concerns