Gay Men More Likely to Have Had Cancer

MONDAY May 9, 2011 -- A new study finds that homosexual men are twice as likely as other males to have been diagnosed with and then survive a cancer, shining a light on the unique medical risks that gay people may face.

It's not the first time that researchers have noted differences in health risks linked to sexual orientation. Gay men, of course, are at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV, while lesbians may be more likely than heterosexual women to get breast cancer. Both gay men and lesbians have higher rates of tobacco use than the general population, and research has shown that lesbians drink more and are more prone to obesity than other women.

The new study adds to existing knowledge, but "there's a painful dearth of data about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health in general," noted Liz Margolies, executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network, who's familiar with the new research.

In the new study, published online May 9 in Cancer, researchers examined surveys involving more than 122,000 California residents from 2001, 2003 and 2005. Among other things, the surveys asked about sexual orientation and whether the participants had ever been diagnosed with cancer.

About 8 percent of the gay men in the group reported having had cancer -- almost double the rate among the heterosexual and bisexual men surveyed.

Lesbians didn't have a higher rate of cancer than other women, but lesbian cancer survivors were about twice as likely to report that they had fair or poor health compared to heterosexual women.

The study can't say whether gays and lesbians are more likely to develop cancer in the first place, since it doesn't include people who have died from the disease or may be too ill to answer questions, stressed study author Ulrike Boehmer, an associate professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.

Experts already believe that gay men face a higher risk of anal, lung, testicular and immune-system cancers, she said. For their part, lesbians are thought to possibly be at higher risk of breast cancer, perhaps because many of them don't give birth.

But firm statistics are hard to find. "I can't tell you if we have an increased rate of lung cancer, because no national cancer registries are collecting information about sexual orientation," Margolies said. "We're left hidden in that data, which is critical for us to have. We know that white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer and black women more likely to die from it. That's important to know, and we need to know similar things so we can get funding and set up programs that address our needs."

While things are changing, she added, another long-standing challenge for gays has been an unwelcoming atmosphere in many medical offices. "Until we can guarantee a safe, respectful and welcoming experience, we're not going to show up," she said.

More information

There's more on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender health at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Posted: May 2011


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