Although cancer is one of today’s most-talked-about diseases, it is rare for that conversation to focus on lesbians. But for three days in September, that’s exactly what happened when hundreds of people from lesbian cancer-advocacy organizations, the medical community, and government agencies gathered for the first-ever national symposium on lesbians and cancer.
"We wanted this conference to help create more local grassroots lesbian health organizations,” said Kathleen DeBold, executive director of the Mautner Project, which organized the Healing Works conference, held September 21–23 in Washington, D.C.
Another goal was to give activists and lesbian cancer survivors the opportunity to work with government officials and researchers in establishing a future agenda for lesbian cancer research and support services.
“We need to push researchers to pay attention to the needs of lesbians and bisexual women in our community,” said Juanita Crespo of the Chicago-based Lesbian Community Cancer Project. “We need to push women to speak up for themselves, to identify what they lack and what they need, and to get health providers and researchers to address that.”
Event speakers—among them Marilyn Gaston, a U.S. assistant surgeon general; National Black Women’s Health Project founder Byllye Avery; and surgeon and author on breast cancer Susan Love—discussed whether and to what extent lesbians are at higher risk for certain types of cancer. “Clearly there are lifestyle issues that put us at risk for certain kinds of cancer,” DeBold said. “We know that having children later or not having them at all puts women at higher risk for some cancers, like breast cancer. And there are many lesbians who fit into that group.”
The biggest risk factor of all, however, is the homophobia in the health care arena that keeps lesbians out of the doctor’s office, limiting their access to the cancer-screening tests that can and do save lives, she said.
“The bottom line is that researchers discriminate, doctors discriminate, and insurance companies discriminate,” DeBold said. “But cancer doesn’t. We need to get together and find out how we can change the first three of those problems.”