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Cancer LBTQ

Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine/MEDILL

Kristin Keglovitz Baker (far left), a clinical director at the Howard Brown Health Center, answers questions at a panel discussion about breast and ovarian cancer risks for the LBTQ community.

Cancer risks increased for lesbians

by Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine
Jan 17, 2013

Lesbian women are more subject to developing cancers, and especially breast and ovarian cancers,

according to Kristin Keglovitz Baker, a clinical director at the Howard Brown
Health Center in Chicago. But why is that?

This increased prevalence is due to multiple factors, such as higher tobacco
and alcohol use, fewer pregnancies and greater rates of obesity, according to

Women’s Health Initiative, a longitudinal research project that collects health
risk information for older women, conducted studies on a sample size of 96,000
lesbian and bisexual-identifying women. It found that this population was
significantly more likely than heterosexuals to be heavy drinkers, current or
previous smokers, obese and to never having been pregnant.

“There is very little research about the LGBTQ community, but statistics show
that people in these communities are more inclined to engage in highly risky
behavior,” said Betsy Rubinstein, the manager of the Lesbian Community Care
Project at the Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan Road.

Historically, bars were the kind of place where LGBTQ people gathered to meet
and to socialize, according to Rubinstein.

“Drinking high amounts of alcohol is more common in that community,” she said.
“But things are changing now.”

Baker said these higher rates were due to lifestyle factors, but also to the
fact that LGBTQ people do not have regular health maintenance. They either feel
uncomfortable or have difficulties accessing health care in general.

Lesbian and bisexual-identifying women are less likely to have a mammogram and
are more likely to wait longer between PAP tests  –  a
screening test in order to detect cervical cancer.

“Often LGBTQ people have had a bad experience, so they turn off health care,”
said Baker.

“Personally I have been lucky. Health care providers have never been
discriminatory towards me,” Rubinstein said. “But in my personal experience, I
have gone to doctors that have not made a comfortable space for me to say that
I have a partner or that I am a lesbian.”

As a whole, the LGBTQ community faces barriers to accessing quality health
care, and these barriers vary, according to Baker.

One of them is cultural, but Rubinstein said she thinks there has been a shift,
notably in Chicago. Because LGBTQ issues are more visible than before—in the
media, in politics, in literature—people are more naturally talking about them.

“Queer women are more likely to come now for care than they were 10 years ago
because the social environment has changed a bit,” she said.

The financial barrier is the most important one, according to Rubinstein.

“LGBTQs are more likely to be unemployed, or cannot access their partner’s
health care,” she said.

Gay marriage is not recognized in Illinois, and this creates a lack of legal
recognition for same-sex couples. Consequently, many insurance companies and
employers do not provide domestic partner benefits to LGBTQ couples in
committed relationships, so they are less likely to have access to insurance.

“Because same-sex relationships are not recognized, if my partner was employed
and if I were not … she could not put me on her health care plans,” Rubinstein said.

Despite all of these important difficulties, Baker remains optimistic, and
encourages clinicians “to care for patients, not judge or be curious about
their practices.”