Washington, D.C., has the highest rate of breast cancer deaths in the entire United States, followed by New Jersey and Louisiana, then Virginia and Maryland. Between 2001 and 2005, D.C. ranked sixth in the nation. So if you look at the entire Washington metropolitan area, we might be considered the breast cancer capital of the world.
Now add the fact that, of all ethnic groups, black women have the highest breast cancer death rates. They’re almost twice as likely as white women to die of breast cancer.
Hey, let’s go even deeper. It is now widely recognized lesbians are at higher risk of breast cancer. Why? Well, there are several reasons. First, it has been shown that lesbians are less likely to have health insurance, unless they are married to straight men who have employee-provided coverage. Even if they’re out and in committed same-sex relationships, they’re usually excluded from coverage available to opposite-sex couples. It’s called health discrimination. I have a more accurate name for it: “Health Hate Crime.” And it can kill, too.
Chances are if you are living in rural Louisiana, you won’t reveal to your doctor you’re a lesbian. Thus, he or she won’t be aware of your higher risk of breast cancer. You also will not find support groups for lesbian breast cancer survivors. You can count on that. If you live in New York City? Probably.
Of course, some researches pooh-pooh this idea, and say few lesbian breast cancer studies have been conducted and those that have used small sample sizes. So, why not do more research? It only seems logical lesbians face a higher risk of breast cancer. Still, additional studies need to be carried out. Sadly, all it will take to scuttle that suggestion are a few conservative lawmakers’ raising a stink, as they did regarding the “lesbian obesity studies.”
However, there’s some good news. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced this year HHS will begin collecting health-related data on members of the LGBTQ community. “Health disparities have persistent and costly effects for minority communities, and the whole country,” Sebelius pointed out. No kidding.
One lesbian activist who’d had enough of discrimination against lesbians was Mary-Helen Mautner. In 1989, only weeks away from succumbing to breast cancer herself, Mautner took the first step to placing lesbians front and center in the breast cancer and LGBTQ health arena. Her life partner Susan Hester, joined by dedicated friends, created the Mary-Helen Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer, now known as the Mautner Project.
Other lesbians have since stepped forward and outed themselves as breast cancer survivors. In 2004, lesbian music icon Melissa Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer, followed by lesbian tennis great Martina Navratilova. (Navratilova gave her diagnosis the name, “my own personal 9/11.”
Have you noticed all these women are white?
Then in 2011 came shocking news from comedienne Wanda Sikes when she revealed publicly she had undergone an aggressive double mastectomy in hopes of avoiding the breast cancer that ran in her family. Overnight, Sikes — the first celebrity, black lesbian to announce she had breast cancer — became a vocal advocate for lesbian breast cancer survivors. All it takes is a brave black woman to tell the world she’s a breast cancer survivor. More will follow.
A late diagnosis can lead to early death and early diagnoses can mean survival. Prevention is the key. But women who go to gynecologists usually do so to obtain birth control. Lesbians, not concerned about birth control, are thus less likely to be checked for breast (and cervical and ovarian) cancer.
Dr. Susan Love, the world-renowned lesbian surgeon and bestselling author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, shocked the breast cancer community when she revealed in a New York Times article she had leukemia. The 65-year-old lesbian breast cancer activist told the Times she would have been less shocked if it were breast cancer “because it’s so common.” With leukemia, she said, she entered a world she didn’t know. “Even when you’re a physician,” she said, “ when you get shocking news like this you sort of forget everything you know and are scared the same as everybody else.”