As the founder and executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network, it would be very easy for me to sit in an office and dictate the tenets of good health. I deeply care about improving the health of my community, and constantly read new findings about exercise, nutrition, and, most important for my work, cancer. It would be too easy to espouse a “just do it” approach in advising LGBT patients to get mammograms, anal Paps, or the deeply dreaded colonoscopies. Easy, but not tempting to me.
For when the day ends and I get up from the computer to head for bed, I would be unable to sleep. I would be worried sick about those who took my advice at face value and headed off to whatever medical provider was most conveniently located. Health provider bias against LGBT people is declining, but it is still absolutely present today. I might have sent my people into yet another lion’s den of discrimination, even as I meant to improve their health.
A large Harris Interactive Poll found that 75% of lesbians surveyed avoid or delay medical care. After cost, the most common reasons were “feared negative experiences” and “previous discrimination.” If I can’t guarantee my sisters and brothers a decent and respectful experience when they get screened for cancer, I have no right to push for it. Research already confirms that nearly one out of five transgender patients is turned away by a health care provider.
Still, I remain upset about the increased cancer risks and lower screening rates of LGBT people. I aim to lower our burden of this disease to at least that of our heterosexual counterparts. Our task was clear: make it safe to get screened for cancer and then spread the news about it far and wide.
With a generous grant from the Palette Fund and the fierce determination of my staff, we scoured the country and found over 400 LGBT-friendly, safe, welcoming, free or low-cost facilities that offer cancer screenings. They are all uploaded in a simple state-by-state directory on our website. In most, we have a designated individual who will personally shepherd LGBT people through the process, ensuring, for example, that transgender men who come for a mammogram will not be given a pink robe and expected to sit in a waiting room with women. If there is no individual name and email listed, it is because everyone in that facility has been trained in the issues faced by LGBT people and will welcome you in, providing a safe and nonjudgmental setting for your screening.
Our goal is to have every person in this country be within driving distance of a safe and affordable place to be screened for cancer. If we missed a place in your part of the country, write to us and we will update the directory. More broadly, we aim to eliminate the undue burden of cancer among LGBT people. Take care of that body. Get screened for cancer. When the results come back negative, we will both sleep better that night.
LIZ MARGOLIES is founder and executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network.