Gender and sexual minority health isn’t just about HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health. It’s also about cancers, and our exposures to risk factors for cancers. Why? Because everyone can get cancer, and we all need both preventative and therapeutic health care.
Cancer is not just one disease, which is why it’s been so difficult to “cure”. Cancer is when a cell mutates and grows out of control. The cells begin to invade other tissues, and can spread throughout the body. Any cell can become cancerous. And different cancers are caused by different things and have different treatments.
A recent paper, published online ahead of print, looked at the data surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) populations and cancers. They specifically looked at cancers which may be more common in LGBT communities: anal, breast, cervical, colon/rectal, endometrial, lung, and prostate cancers.
Why might these cancers be more common in LGBT communities? Perhaps because of higher levels of risk factors like obesity, smoking, and certain infections. Or perhaps because of lack of preventative health care.
But what do the data say? What data do we even have? So far it looks like we don’t have much information. Most studies about cancers don’t ask about sexual orientation or gender identity. But let’s take the data one cancer type at a time, just as the paper did…
Anal cancer is a rare cancer of the anus. It’s primarily associated with HIV infection and HPV infection. Men who have sex with men, because they are at high risk for HIV and HPV infections, are at higher risk for anal cancer. The risks for women and transgender people are unknown. The best prevention for anal cancer is the HPV vaccine and consistent use of condoms to prevent HPV and HIV infections. Screening, to catch cancers in their most treatable state, can be done through the anal pap test. However there are no guidelines for the anal pap test and its value as a screening tool is uncertain. Treatment for anal cancer can impact not only general quality of life for survivors but sexual quality of life for men who have sex with men. The effects on sexual quality of life may be under appreciated by physicians.
Breast cancer is among the most frequently diagnosed cancers in women. Unlike with anal cancer, there are no obvious risk factors beyond being a cisgender woman. There are no data on how rates of breast cancer differ between heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian women. It is thought that bisexual/lesbian women may be at higher risk of breast cancer because of high rates of smoking, alcohol use, and obesity. Lesbian/bisexual women are also less likely to carry a pregnancy. However, it’s not known if those risk factors are actually associated with higher rates of disease. There are no data on cis or trans male breast cancer. Trans women were thought to potentially be at higher risk because of the hormones they take, but data so far seem to indicate that they’re at low risk. When it comes to screening, the best screenings so far are clinical breast exams and mammography. Women who have sex with women are less likely to receive either. Once they survive a breast cancer, women who have sex with women may be at risk for sexual side effects more than heterosexual women.
Cervical cancer is a cancer that exclusively affects cisgender women, pre-op trans men and others who have a cervix. There are no data describing how the risk for cervical cancer may be different for bisexual/lesbian women and trans men. The biggest risk for cervical cancer is HPV infection. The best prevention of cervical cancer includes the HPV vaccine and the use of barriers to prevent HPV infection. For screening, pelvic exam with pap smear at a regular interval is recommended. Women who have sex with women are less likely to receive the vaccine and less likely to receive regular screenings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is true for trans men. This would leave both bisexual/lesbian women and trans men at higher risk for cervical cancer, and higher risk that if there is cancer it will be discovered at a later stage. No studies have been performed examining how women who have sex with women and trans men fare after a cervical cancer diagnosis.
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Preliminary studies indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual cisgender people are not being diagnosed with colon cancer more frequently than heterosexual people are. There are no data on trans people. However, LGB people are more likely to have risk factors like obesity, smoking, and alcohol use. On the whole, they are also less likely to receive screenings for colon cancer. The exception is gay and bisexual men, who receive colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy more often than heterosexual men (the authors theorize that this may be because colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy are used to diagnose difficulties with receptive anal sex). No studies have compared side effects in LGBT survivors. However, clinicians should advise men who have receptive anal sex that treatment may impact their sexual life.
Endometrial cancer is a cancer of the lining of the uterus, which can affect any individual with that lining. There are no data on lesbian, bisexual, or transgender populations nor are there recommendations for prevention and screening for endometrial cancer. Survivor outcomes are similarly murky. However the authors note that lesbian and bisexual women, because of stigma, may seek medical care later than heterosexual women. The authors advocate for a welcoming LGBT environment for patients to facilitate early detection and treatment.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide and is primarily caused by tobacco smoke. There are no direct studies of lung cancer in LGBT populations, but LGBT people are far more likely than heterosexual/cisgender people to smoke. LGBT people, as a whole, are thus at higher risk for lung cancer. While an annual screening (via low-dose CT scan) is recommended for some long term smokers, the guidelines were not intended for LGBT patients and may not be appropriate. Outcomes and side effects are unknown for LGBT people.
Prostate cancer is a cancer that exclusively affects cisgender men and transgender women (regardless of surgical status — the prostate is not removed in surgery). HIV+ men may be at lower risk for prostate cancer, though that may be an artifact of testing. The risk of prostate cancer for trans women is unknown, but is not zero. The screening test for prostate cancer, prostate specific antigen (PSA), is of limited value, but it appears that there are no differences in screening based on sexual orientation. Treatment for prostate cancer often has sexual and bowel side effects which may affect men who have sex with men differently (particularly men who prefer receptive anal sex).
Astute readers may have noticed a trend: There are not enough data. This is a huge problem in gender and sexual minority health. We just do not know enough, particularly about topics other than HIV. While some research is going on now to try to tackle these issues, it will be a while before those results come out and get validated.
So in the mean time, what is an LGBT+ person, worried about cancer, to do? You have options! You can…
- Find a medical provider whom you feel safe and comfortable with, and make sure you come out to them. Ask them about screening schedules for you, given your own set of risk factors. Screenings will not prevent cancer, but they will allow your physician to detect cancer in its earliest, most curable stages and could save your life.
- Exercise, achieve/maintain as healthy a weight as you can, and eat a varied diet. All of these things will help reduce your risks.
- Quit smoking, if you currently use tobacco. Don’t start to use tobacco if you currently don’t. All forms of tobacco cause cancer, including chew and snuff.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Drinking a lot is associated with higher rates of some cancers.
- Be HPV-aware, and get vaccinated if you can. Use barriers in sexual encounters to prevent both HPV and HIV infection.
- Be as familiar with your body as you can, so that you can detect changes and notify your physician.
Want to read the study for yourself? It’s publicly available!