Editor’s note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. dapperQ recognizes that everyone in our community, irrespective of sex or gender, is at some risk (some higher than others) for developing breast cancer. In this article, we refer to cancer in breast tissue as breast cancer, and to the tissue itself as breasts. We acknowledge that many of our readers do not identify as having breasts, feel ambivalent about having breasts, or perhaps prefer the term “chest.” Fenway Health, a Boston-based health center that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, offers culturally competent literature on breast health here.
I recently went to Rusty’s LezzDance party in Austin, TX where I struck up a conversation with a butch who told me that she works hard to keep herself in shape: she swims, she runs, she skis. What she doesn’t do, she proudly stated, was “…crap like breast exams and colonoscopies.” I, too, once held this philosophy about my health. I attribute it do what I call my “butch attitude.” But, I have since changed my position on doing the medical footwork required to keep myself healthy. Here’s why…
1.) Cancer doesn’t happen to you alone. My mother is dying of breast cancer and I’ve got her back. But, I won’t put my wife through that if I can avoid it. I also don’t want to wipe out the savings we’ve worked so hard to build. One way to think about it: Who is willing to stand by you in chronic illness and are you willing to honor their loyalty with a little bravery of your own?
2.) The act of taking care of ourselves is an act of self love. Yet, because of institutionalized bias and discrimination against the LGBTQ community, the medical establishment rarely makes this act easy. Most studies show that LGBTQ people have significantly lower colorectal cancer screening rates, especially transgender people and people of color. Some groups within our community also have some of the highest rates of breast cancer. According to Fenway Health:
Sexual, gender and other minority women are more likely to experience financial, cultural, or linguistic barriers to adequate health care. This can mean fewer doctor’s visits, mammograms, and less follow-up care.
…Many women in our community who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender may have more risk factors for breast cancer than their heterosexual peers. Many straight, cisgender women connect with care primarily through reproductive services and receive regular screenings, including breast exams during office visits. Because LBT women might not have children or receive reproductive care, they have fewer chances to access screening services. Furthermore, some avoid medical care due to fear of discrimination or a lack of understanding on the part of medical providers.
Transgender people especially are at risk of being excluded from breast cancer awareness information—both because our understanding of breast cancer risks for trans people is limited and because most information is framed around the experiences of cisgender women. Transgender people may not perceive risk for cancer in body parts that are not embraced or have been removed or added. But transgender women and men receiving hormone therapy may be at increased risk of breast cancer.
Transgender men may also feel marginalized by many breast cancer awareness campaigns, which discuss breast cancer primarily as a women’s health issue. Transgender men may feel disconnected from their breasts, or assume top surgery protects them, and therefore neglect to do breast tissue self exams. But chest reconstruction leaves some breast tissue behind, which remains susceptible to cancer.
If you live in a place like NYC or Boston, you can go to health centers like Callen-Lorde and Fenway Health, respectively, that provide sensitive, quality health care and related services our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities regardless of ability to pay. But most of us don’t have queer-friendly medical providers. Here’s a resource list of cancer screening facilities from the National LGBTQ Cancer Network that are. You can also examine your breasts/chest for free in the privacy of your own home.
All of this said, like Fenway, dapperQ hopes to see a more inclusive Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The current campaign has a one-size-fits-all message that leaves the LGBTQ community behind. Further, the Think Before You Pink project has pointed out some additional problems with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, including, but not limited to, corporations selling pink ribbon products in the name of breast cancer that contain chemicals linked to an increased risk of the disease.
This month, we encourage our readers to Tweet images of themselves wearing pink (a shirt, a bow-tie, etc.) with the hashtag #queerswearpink and include what you want to see in more inclusive breast cancer awareness campaigns. Don’t forget to spread the message by tweeting at research foundations, political representatives, and health centers. Awareness and screening are only a part of the solution. We demand campaigns that use gender-neutral, culturally sensitive language. We want research that not only looks at cures for cancer, but also at the environmental causes of cancer so that it is prevented, rather than just diagnosed and treated. There needs to be universal access to care so that we do not see disparities such as this (via Susan G. Komen):
For African-American women, the risk of getting breast cancer is lower than for white women, but the risk of dying from breast cancer is higher African-American women have a 41 percent higher rate of breast cancer mortality (death) than white women.
Let’s all take a stand in caring for ourselves, our families, and our communities.