National LGBT Cancer Network Wants You to Get Screened

Liz Margolies

If an LGBT person isn’t open to his or her doctor, how can that doctor make astute recommendations? If that doctor isn’t privy to LGBT health issues, how can a patient expect to get an informed opinion?

These are the questions that concern Liz Margolies, the founder and executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network. It’s home to a database of resources that LGBT people can use in each of the 50 states. Specifically, these resources aim to try and help LGBT people get screened for cheap by providers who understand their concerns. But Margolies says that’s just one of three main focuses of the Cancer Network, which she started in 2007.

First, there’s the obvious: Educating the gay community. From how to treat their bodies to how they should expect their partners to treat their bodies, education is key to a healthy community. Second, there’s training healthcare providers on LGBT-friendly service.

“One of the reasons our people don’t engage with the healthcare system is because they’ve had so many discriminatory problems,” Margolies said.

The third focus is advocating on behalf of the gay community in areas like cancer research and media.

“We know, for example, that LGBT people smoke at twice the national rate — but I can’t really tell you that our incidence of lung cancer is higher because no national surveys or registries collect information about gender identity or sexual orientation,” Margolies said. “For example, we know that white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer but black women are more likely to die from it, but there’s no specific information like this on the LGBT community.”

To this extent, Margolies added some more insight. Lesbians, for example, are more likely to smoke, drink, and eat unhealthy foods — on the whole, she said. And gay men have very high rates of HPV, also smoke and drink more, and have a higher rate of anal cancers. One in 5 transgender people claimed in a survey that they had been turned away by providers who said they didn’t know how to deal with them.

Knowing how to deal with them is called cultural competency, a guide to which the Cancer Network was contracted to create — what Margolies called one of the organization’s big successes. The guide and test allow hospitals to get their providers certified in how to deal with and understand the health concerns of the LGBT population. Perhaps most importantly, cultural competency shows a provider how to talk to an LGBT person.

This is important because providers may not know how heavily the risk of cancer lies on an LGBT person’s shoulders. In California, for example, Margolies said that the incidence of cancer is 50 percent higher than the national average. It’s only one state, and she wants to see more research being conducted on the rest of the country.

“Cancer is a large and growing problem in the LGBT community. We have larger risk and less screenings,” Margolies said. “The greater risk is connected to the stress of living with the stress and stigma of being LGBT.”

And that’s why when you go the Cancer Network’s website, the first bold headline that hits you is “Take Care of That Body.”

Jenna McDavid, who’s now in charge of marketing for the Cancer Network, was originally going to join Planned Parenthood, but realized that even in such an LGBT-savvy organization, there was a gap between what the doctors and nurses knew and what the gay community needed.

“A lot of the missteps that providers make are not malicious. They don’t understand that the LGBT community has different needs and uses a different language to explains these needs,” McDavid said. “A lot of times we think about how we want to be treated, so our curriculum gets people thinking in different directions — I wish every healthcare provider in the world would go through this training.”

Cancer is the issue, and the Cancer Network hope people will use it and get the help they and their loved ones need.

“Whether you have cancer or not, someone in your family or surroundings will be affected by cancer at some time,” McDavid said. “Cancer is such a big, huge, scary problem.”

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