Lesbians have the highest concentration of risk factors for breast cancer of any subset of women in the world, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (IGLA) has found.
Combined with the fact that many lesbians over 40 do not get routine mammograms, do self breast exams, or have a clinical breast exam, the cancer may not be diagnosed early when it is most curable.
The report also indicated many lesbians and same-sex-attracted women do not reveal their sexual orientation to their health practitioner. IGLA determined that this invisibility in health situations had a further impact on the psychological wellbeing of the women.
The findings, published in the Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Health Report, led to the formation of the Lesbians and Cancer Project – a joint initiative between ACON and the NSW Cancer Council.
As part of the project, lesbians were included in the NSW Cancer Council peer support program Cancer Connect, and project facilitators established The C-Word, a monthly support group for lesbians who have been diagnosed with cancer, and their partners.
According to the Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancer is the major cause of cancer death in Australian women accounting for more than 11,700 new cases and 2,600 deaths each year.
Women whose cancer is still contained in the breast when diagnosed have a 90 percent chance of surviving five years, the Foundation confirmed, compared with a 20 percent five-year survival chance if the cancer has already spread when diagnosed.
Early detection, health authorities have agreed, is the best method for reducing deaths from breast cancer.
ACON lesbian health officer Siri May said lesbians were less likely to see their doctor regularly, resulting in a higher morbidity rate at diagnosis.
This especially applies to the “baby boomers”, May added, who are all now at risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“This is combined with an already high concentration of risk factors, including not having children or having children later, and high rates of smoking and drinking,” she said.
There were further challenges for lesbians after being diagnosed with cancer, May said, with some healthcare providers reacting adversely to lesbian sexuality.
“When a lesbian is suffering from the impact of a new cancer diagnosis, she has to negotiate her way through a health system that is predominantly set up for heterosexuals,” she said.
NSW Cancer Council cancer information and support services director Gillian Batt said ACON and the NSW Cancer Council had been training lesbian cancer survivors to offer support to other lesbians who had received a recent diagnosis.
“That way they can talk to someone in a similar situation about the difficulties they can face in conventional health treatment,” she said.
“There is a general assumption that all women are heterosexual, so a lot of the support services, and the way a health professional will treat you and refer to you, will assume you are heterosexual and that can be difficult for women.”
The Lesbians and Cancer Project, spearheaded by ACON’s Lesbian Health Project, relies on fundraised money and relatively small grants in order to sustain its work in what is a significantly under-researched area of health.

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