October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when people throughout the United States shine a spotlight on a disease that will claim the lives of tens of thousands of women this year.
Yet the voices of many gay men are notably absent in this conversation. When it comes to health issues, gay men overhelmingly support HIV organizations with their time and money. And rightfully so. The HIV epidemic is not over, and the virus still disproprotionately affects this demographic.
However, gay men are missing an opportunity to support the women in their lives who have been diagnosed with or who are at risk for breast cancer. A chilling statistic underscores this need. Just as one in eight people are unaware that they are living with HIV, one in eight women in the United States are likely to develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes.
According to BreastCancer.org, there are more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the United States. This number includes women in treatment and women in recovery. About 40,290 women are expected to die this year from breast cancer.
Brian Henry, also known as DJ B-Hen, counts his mother among these victims. She died of breast cancer when he was 17. In response, he founded Beats to Beat Breast Cancer. The group, which raises awareness and funds to help various organizations find a cure, is also trying to mobilize LGBT people to join this fight.
"Outside of HIV, you don't see any real advocacies about other diseases such as cancer," DJ B-Hen says. "We realized that if we wanted the support of the LGBT community, we had to plan around the AIDS Walk. Otherwise, people were less likely to be as concerned with this cause, though breast cancer is affecting all women, especially those of color."
Ben Jones, a gay television writer and the executive director of Beats to Beat Breast Cancer, is also sounding this clarion call. Jones, whose mother also died of breast cancer, urges other gay men to support causes that may not impact them directly but affect their female family members, friends, and allies.
"As gay men, we have to stand up and fight, not just for our own equality and rights within the world, but for the equality of everyone," he says. "And that includes the equality of women who battle breast cancer."
According to the National Cancer Institute, black women, at 30.2 percent, have the highest mortality rate from breast cancer of any racial or ethnic group. White women follow at 21.3 percent, non-Hispanic women at 22.6 percent, American Indian women at 15 percent, Hispanic women at 14.5 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islander women at 11.4 percent. These women are grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and the women who support gay men in their hours of need.
In addition to biological family, there's also the "logical family," as author Armistead Maupin once said, of the women in the LGBT community. According to the American Cancer Society, lesbians and bisexual women have higher rates of breast cancer than heterosexual women. Low rates of health insurance, fear of discrimination, and negative experiences with health care providers are all factors in this health crisis.
Not too long ago, these women provided supportive services to dying gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis when few others dared. It is time to respond in kind.
These women need support. Studies show that facing cancer as a community improves the quality of life and survival rates for breast cancer patients. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation encourages the participation of "co-survivors," which includes family members, friends, colleagues, and community members, in standing beside those with breast cancer through diagnosis and treatment.
DJ B-Hen lost his mother 14 months after her diagnoses. That experience shaped how his organization Beats to Beat Cancer encourages people to get involved.
"Women always have to be emotionally strong for everyone else, but during this time of her life, the men must step up and be strong for them," he says. "Women are terrified to find out that they have breast cancer. Let them know that you will be by their side emotionally and physically. Encourage them to them to go to the doctor, and let them know you will be there with them."
How can a gay man help a woman with breast cancer? Support her decisions. Accompany her to appointments. Talk to her openly about her health. Anticipate her needs. And most important, listen.
Gay men must be more effective caregivers to the women in their lives. Through education and empowerment, we can see a dramatic change in the conversation and care of women diagnosed with breast cancer.
For more information on Beats to Beat Breast Cancer, visit its website at www.beatstobeatbreastcancer.com. The group's event series on breast cancer awareness kicked off Thursday in New York City. There will be additional events Sunday in Los Angeles and Wednesday in Washington, D.C.