A study released today in the journal Cancer that looked at the medical data of more than 120,000 people in California suggests that gay men report a higher cancer rate than heterosexual men and that female cancer survivors identifying as lesbian or bisexual report poorer health and wellbeing than their straight counterparts.
“A lack of hard data” on how sexual orientation affects the risk of cancer is “one of the biggest problems we have,” said Liz Margolies, executive director of The National LGBT Cancer Network. Margolies, who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Health, “It’s critical that we know that for funding and for program planning.”
As a step toward addressing the lack of data, researchers looked at three years of responses to the California Health Interview survey, which included more than 120,000 adults living in the state.
Among other health-related questions, participants were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with cancer and whether they identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight.
The findings are published in the journal Cancer.
Out of 51,000 men, about 3,700 said they had been diagnosed with cancer as an adult. While just over 8 percent of gay men reported a history of cancer, that figure was only 5 percent in straight men. The disparity could not be attributed to differences in race, age, or income between gay and straight men.
About 7,300 out of 71,000 women in the study had been diagnosed with cancer, but overall cancer rates did not differ among lesbian, bisexual, and straight women.
However, among women who were cancer survivors, lesbian and bisexual women were more likely to report fair or poor health than straight women.
[Dr Ulrike Boehmer, the study's author] said: “One common explanation for why lesbian and bisexual women report worse health compared to heterosexual women is minority stress [which] suggests lesbian and bisexual women have worse health, including psychological health due to their experiences of discrimination, prejudice, and violence.”
She called for more services to “improve the well-being of lesbian and bisexual cancer survivors” and for programs which “focus on primary cancer prevention and early cancer detection” in homosexual men.
The study also showed that gay men were more likely to report being diagnosed with cancer at a younger age than straight men, with an average age of 41 among gay men.
As to why cancer rates among gay men might be higher, researchers note that LGBTs tend to have a higher level of contributing risk factors than straight-identifying adults some of which may be typical of persecuted minority groups.
Such factors include higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption/abuse and, as mentioned above, the fact that LGBTs are less likely to go for regular health screenings for fear of discriminatory treatment.
HIV and associated infections may also play a part in higher cancer rates (HPV or the human papillomavirus being of particular concern among HIV positive men) but the study had no way of identifying this and therefore, researchers say, it remains speculation at this stage.
The one thing that the study’s authors say can be taken away from these findings is that LGBTs need more targeted health care and that, in particular, the poorer wellbeing reported by lesbian and bisexual cancer survivors needs to be acted on. As such, it is hoped these findings serve as a platform for further study.
A recent report sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that research into disease prevalence and barriers to appropriate care where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are concerned remains a critically underdeveloped field of knowledge which in turn leaves LGBTs vulnerable when it comes to seeking medical assistance. Click here to read more.
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