By Chloe Pinto
An increasing number of studies in the U.S.A and the U.K. have found that lesbians are much less likely to regularly visit healthcare professionals and partake in preventative care such as cervical cancer screenings.
In the U.S.A. it is recommended that women, over the age of eighteen years old, or who have been sexually active for three years, get Pap smears once every 1 to 3 years. Pap smears are an established method in developed countries to detect cervical abnormalities, such as pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions, that could develop into cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is considered to be a highly preventable cancer as 90 to 98% of cases occur due to the main risk factor: oncogenic strains of HPV (Human Papillomavirus), which can be detected through Pap smears. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include lack of regular cervical cancer screening, smoking, and obesity, all present at a higher incidence rate in the lesbian community.
Recent polls have found that only about 44 to 57% of self-defined lesbians over the age of eighteen had undergone a Pap smear in the last three years, compared to 84% of heterosexual women. Here are a few reasons expressed as to why gay women do not seek out regular gynecological check ups:
Firstly, as in all communities, education and socio-economic status have a huge impact on healthcare seeking patterns. For lesbians, primarily, their very identity has impacted how they access gynecological care. Lesbians often avoid health care centers due to fear of experiencing homophobia or due to past negative experiences linked to their sexual orientation. Lesbians who abstain from mentioning their sexual orientation to their primary health physician are often those who will abstain from seeking gynecological assistance.
Also, lesbians often lack the same reasons for attending a regular gynecological examination. Unlike heterosexual women who might be encouraged to go to a gynecologist for regular screenings in order to acquire birth control prescriptions, homosexual women do not share the same incentive. (One encouraging shift is that, as lesbian women become an increasing part of the pregnant population, they seek out more gynecological advice and help – which in turn increases their exposure to screening).
Secondly, the healthcare community may have contributed to this deficit by sending inconsistent messages about the importance of regular Pap smears for the lesbian community. For many years HPV was thought to be transmitted through heterosexual activity. Thus not surprisingly, when asked, lesbians think of HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases as being a predominantly heterosexual problem.
But we now know that HPV does not discriminate according to sexual preference.
We who care about the women of the lesbian community need to fight these two factors, and encourage women everywhere to attend regular screenings – because they are the only path towards health. As a woman who loves women, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all women, and especially the lesbian and bisexual population, to make an appointment with your gynecologist if it’s been a while, especially for cervical cancer testing. There are plenty of gynecologists today who are informed and sensitive to lesbian specific health care necessities. They can help. Please, keep yourself rosy and healthy!
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This blog reflects the lessons our team learns on our quest to defeat cervical cancer.