Dykes and the C-Word

Are hard drinking and heavy smoking really giving lesbians cancer?

The Lesbian Cancer Initiative at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center just wrapped up the first eight-week cycle of a new group therapy session for lesbian survivors of cancer—the only group of its kind in New York. Advocates say it's about time New York caught up with Chicago, D.C., Atlanta, and other cities that long ago recognized the need for specialized resources, given that lesbians may have a particularly high risk for developing breast and gynecological cancers.

The bad news hit the LGBT community about 13 years ago when the National Cancer Institute announced that lesbians have a two- to threefold higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Suzanne Haynes, an epidemiologist and former chief of the health education section of the National Cancer Institute, took known risk factors and looked to see if they occurred more among lesbians and found that they did. It was partly bad habits—overweight lesbians drinking and smoking too much—and partly science: Interruptions of the body's estrogen production, which can be brought about by bearing children or taking the pill, are believed to decrease the risk of cervical and breast cancer.

The gay and mainstream press ate it up—eager, it seems, for some definitive information about lesbian health. Advocates made breast cancer a sort of dyke poster disease years before pink-ribbon activism hit the malls.

But more recent studies indicate that lesbians may not have such bad habits in comparison to straight women after all. Last year, researchers from the University of California San Francisco and Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services in San Francisco found that, in comparing 324 lesbians with their straight biological sisters, there were no significant differences in smoking, alcohol consumption, or utilization of health care services. And though the lesbians were fatter, they exercised at the same rates and ate low-fat and vegetarian diets at the same rates as their straight siblings. These results, published in Women's Health Issues, corroborated their 2002 findings.

Coordinator of the Lesbian Cancer Initiative Liz Margolies doesn't quite buy the idea that lesbians don't overindulge, and to be sure, there is research to support her view. A 2001 study in APHA's American Journal of Public Health, for example, found that lesbians do smoke and drink more. Though it is still too early to tell, she says she hopes that lesbians are starting to make better lifestyle choices that will change their health futures.

"There isn't much difference in lifestyle. The disparity stems from pregnancy—pregnancy and breast feeding are protective against breast and ovarian cancer," says researcher Suzanne Dibble, founder of the Lesbian Health Research Center. Even so, the estrogen factor may not be as significant a risk as previously thought—according to the California studies, lesbians have an estimated lifetime risk for developing breast cancer of 11.1 out of every 100, while heterosexual women have a 10.6 out of every 100 chance.

At a newish girl bar in Park Slope, a mixed crowd of boys and girls, twenties and thirties, queer-looking and straight-looking, gather for a rowdy Tuesday-night trivia game. Amy Donovan, 31, thinks lesbians are making different lifestyle choices because they have more options. A decade ago the only way to meet other women was to go to a bar, she says, but now "it's one of the last places people go, unless there's something special going on there."

 
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