Lesbians and Cancer

October 23, 2003

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to a letter by Vincent Scarpinato, M.D., on breast cancer risk for lesbians (Gay City News, October 9-15, 2003).

Dr. Scarpinato writes: I treat a lot of lesbians and I’m always surprised when they say that being a gay woman puts them at higher risk of having breast cancer. I always reply that there’s nothing inherent about being a lesbian that increases their personal risk.”

As the medical director of a community health center targeting lesbians, gay men, bisexual men and women, and people of transgender experience, I have personally seen many lesbians who have delayed preventive care––like the 50-year-old woman I saw last week for her first pap smear.

While Dr. Scarpinato is correct being a lesbian in of itself does not increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer, we know that lesbians as a group do have greater numbers of risk factors for cancer (including cervical and breast).

Compared to other women:

––lesbians are more likely to be overweight or obese

––lesbians are twice as likely to smoke

––lesbians are more likely to drink and more likely to be problem drinkers

––lesbians are less likely to bear children

––lesbians are twice as likely to be uninsured.

Again, while I agree with Dr. Scarpinato that the lesbian sitting in his office may not have identifiable risks for breast cancer, I am fearful that lesbians overall will take his letter to mean that they are not at risk. For women who are already so disengaged from health care and who do have a higher likelihood of being at risk, this is a very dangerous message.

I would continue to urge all lesbians to engage in preventive health care, especially appropriate screening for breast cancer.

Dawn Harbatkin, M.D.

Medical Director Callen-Lorde Community Health Center


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