There’s no question that whether you’re gay, straight or bisexual, breast cancer is a major concern. Among cancers that impact women, it’s the most dangerous, affecting approximately one in eight women in the U.S. at some point in her life.
The American Cancer Society notes that lesbian and bisexual women experience higher rates of breast cancer than their heterosexual counterparts. While there’s no difference between the groups physiologically, several factors may be at play according to some experts.
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“While all women are at risk for developing breast cancer, the risk factors are cumulative and appear to be increased in number in lesbians and bisexual women,” says Alejandra Perez, MD, a breast oncologist with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Plantation, Florida. “Studies have shown that lesbians and bisexual women have higher rates of obesity, smoking, depression and anxiety. In addition, lesbians are less likely than heterosexual women to have had a full-term pregnancy, which is considered protective when it occurs before age 30.”
Plan of Attack
Despite the greater risks, the news isn’t all negative when it comes to breast cancer. Dr. Perez notes that the methods for detecting and treating it are better than ever. The key, however, is in recognizing the risks and getting the necessary care as soon as it’s needed.
“The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass,” says Dr. Perez. “A mass that’s painless, hard and has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft or rounded. Sometimes breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt. For this reason, any new breast mass, lump or change deserves attention and a visit to the health care provider.”
Adhering to a screening schedule is critical. Mammography is typically recommended for women once a year, starting at age 40. And if you have a mother or another close relative with a history of breast cancer, then screening should start even earlier.
The Doctor-Patient Relationship
Working closely with a trusted physician is one of the most important factors in both identifying and treating breast cancer early. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be an issue among those in the LGBT community. “Many surveys have shown that many lesbian, gay or bisexual patients are not open about their sexuality with their doctors or other providers,” says Dr. Perez. “Understanding the unique needs of a patient is very important when providing care, and finding a doctor who is sensitive to those needs is key. A good relationship leads to patients not being afraid of asking questions and feeling comfortable, sharing with the team the most intimate aspects of their life.”
Bernadette Zizzo is co-owner of Art Frenzie, a cancer survivor and the founder of Knock Out For the Cure. Pictured above with her life partner, Donna, she is one of the many subjects of the upcoming photographic essay, Resilient Women by Susan S. Buzzi.