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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lesbians and Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer awareness month and since some researchers and health care professionals believe that lesbians may be at greater risk for breast cancer then heterosexual women, I thought it would be appropriate to get some facts out to the lesbian community.

First of all, let me start by saying that just because your a lesbian does not mean that you are automatically at a higher risk for breast cancer. However, having one or more of the risk factors below might put you in that catagory. A lesbian without the risk factors is at no greater risk than a heterosexual woman for breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Risk Factors include:

  • Family History
    Women whose mothers, grandmothers or sisters have had breast cancer are two to three times more likely to develop breast cancer. However, 85% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
  • First childbirth
    The risks are higher among women who have never had (and breastfed) a baby or whose first childbirth occurred after the age of thirty. The risk is reduced by as much as 50 percent for women who have had one child.
  • Menstrual history
    Early first period (before age 11) and late menopause (after age 52) both increase risk.
  • Diet
    High-fat, low-fiber diet increases the risk of Breast Cancer. The risk also increases with women who are overweight. (Nearly 30 percent of lesbians are obese, compared to 20 percent for women overall.)
  • Age
    Risk increases with age. This disease is rare in women under the age of thirty. Women over fifty make up 77% of breast cancer cases.
  • Alcohol
    Women who consume two to five alcoholic drinks a day have a higher risk of breast cancer than do non-drinkers. (Research has not shown that lesbians drink more than the general population, however, they do have a greater history of problems with alcohol.)
  • Smoking
    Research has shown that women who smoke have a 30% higher risk of developing breast cancer compared with women who have never smoked. Research has also shown that 25% of lesbians said they were smokers compared to 19% of heterosexual women in a 2007 Harris Interactive survey.
  • Genetic Alterations
    Specific alterations in certain genes, such as those in the breast cancer genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2), make women more susceptible to breast cancer.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy
    Recent evidence suggests that menopausal women who have long-term exposure (greater than 10 years) to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Socioeconomic Factors
    In the United States, white women from upper-socioeconomic classes living in urban areas are more at risk for breast cancer than other women, for reasons researchers do not yet understand.
  • Environmental Factors
    Research has not yet proven whether there are breast cancer risk risks involved in a number of environmental exposures, including radiation, UV rays in sunlight, artificial sweeteners, pesticides and electromagnetic fields that surround electronic devices like microwave ovens and cell phones.
  • Health Care
    Another issue that lead researchers to believe that Lesbians are at a higher risk is due to the fact that lesbians are less likely to seek routine health care because of the discomfort of coming out to their health care providers and less access to health insurance. With fewer doctor visits, lesbian are less likely to have mammograms and professional breast exams. Studies also show that lesbian women are less likely to perform breast self-exam regularly. For these reasons, lesbians women may be less likely to have cancers detected at earlier, more treatable, stages.

How to reduce your risk for breast cancer:

  • Keep your diet low in fat.

  • Quit smoking - For help with quitting, visit

  • Keep your alcohol consumption light.
  • Learn how to do breast self-exam and do it every month (click here for instructions). And if you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, you can always ask your partner to do it for you. Doing a self-breast exam accounts for 90% of all lump detection and will pick up 40% of early cancers NOT seen on mammograms.

  • Have a health care provider examine your breasts every year and answer any questions you have.

  • If you have no risk factors for breast cancer, get a baseline mammogram when you're 40. Then every 1-2 years after that -- assuming everything is fine -- until you are 50. After 50 get a mammogram every year.

The Safeguard Project
King County Public Health Services

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