A study released Monday found that gay men are nearly twice as likely to report having had cancer than their heterosexual counterparts.
The same research revealed that lesbian and bisexual women are more than twice as likely to report fair or poor health after having cancer.
The study's findings, published in the journal Cancer, conjure a host of questions about the causes and implications of cancer within the LGBT community. Are gay men more likely to be diagnosed with cancer to begin with, or simply more likely to survive once diagnosed? What factors do lesbian women take into account when evaluating the condition of their health?
Liz Margolies, executive director of The National LGBT Cancer Network, told Reuters health that a lack of hard information about the relationship between an individual's sexual orientation and the risk of cancer is "one of the biggest problems we have." Indeed, the research team at Boston University's School of Public Health examined data provided by cancer survivors in California because federal health surveys don't ask about sexual orientation.
Using information collected from more than 120,000 California adults over the course of three years, the study found that eight percent of gay men reported a history of cancer, while only five percent of heterosexual men reported the same. While cancer prevalence among lesbian and bisexual women remained at similar levels to those of straight women, the types of cancer they were affected by differed: The LA Times noted, for example, that 41 percent of bisexual women reported having cervical cancer, twice as many as the other groups of females surveyed.
Ulrike Boehmer, the study's lead author, was quick to note that her work did not examine possible causes for its outcomes, and as a result, she and her researchers could only speculate. For example, she told MSNBC's MyHealthNewsDaily that there may be a correlation between the population of HIV-positive gay men and gay male cancer survivors, as HIV-positive individuals are at a higher risk for anal, lung and testicular cancers. Studies have also shown that smoking rates are higher among homosexuals than heterosexuals, which may or may not be a contributing factor.
As for the poor health reported by lesbian and bisexual women, some experts suggest "minority stress," or the idea that people in a minority group experience prejudice that influences their psychological health, might be a contributing factor. "It's been my experience that the lower quality of life that lesbians report after a cancer diagnosis does not reveal as much about the particular diagnosis, but more about our life experience in general, particularly when confronting a major life crisis," Linda Ellis, executive director of the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative in Georgia, told MyHealthNewsDaily.
According to Ellis, homosexual women are more likely than their heterosexual peers to be uninsured or underinsured because they don't have access to partner health benefits. She added that it takes a lot of energy to come out to each new person encountered during the cancer recovery process, whether it be a nurse at a chemotherapy clinic or members of a support group.
One finding Boehmer could confidently assert from her research? A need for health professionals to pay increased attention to the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities, especially when it comes to issues related to cancer. "We need foremost programs for gay men that focus on primary cancer prevention and early cancer detection," she told Reuters Health.
And because more lesbian and bisexual women describe their health as poor or fair following cancer treatments, she added, "we need foremost programs and services that improve the well-being of lesbian and bisexual cancer survivors."