Breast Cancer: What's My Risk As a WSW?

Is there a higher risk/incidence of breast cancer in Sexual Minority Women?

This is an excellent question and one that has an uncertain answer. First of all, there is little reliable research available to answer this question with confidence. But, it may be true that women of sexual minority have a higher risk or incidence of breast cancer, compared to that of a heterosexual woman.

According to Susan Komen for the Cure, it is estimated that in 2013, 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 64,640 new cases of in situ breast cancer will be diagnosed. Breast cancer is a big risk for women, and less so, for men. It is a difficult and oftentimes devastating diagnosis.

As I discussed in my article for the Journal for Nurse Practitioners in June 2012:

"Several reasons are identified in the literature why WSW may be at a higher risk to develop breast cancer than heterosexual women. It is believed that WSW do not seek preventive mammograms as often as heterosexual women, citing reasons of mistrust of health care providers, negative past experiences, and perceived homophobia in the health care setting (Hutchinson & Cederbaum, 2006).  However, the data suggesting that WSW do not receive screening mammography as much as heterosexual women is not consistent " (Flemmer, Doutrich, Dekker & Rondeau, 2012).

For example, some references (such as Mravcak, 2006) state that heterosexual women and WSW get mammograms at similar rates.  To clarify, not getting screening mammograms doesn't mean you are more likely to get breast cancer than someone who gets them on a regular basis. However, it could mean that you may have an early cancer that doesn't get detected in a timely manner and consequently your risk for developing an advanced cancer can increase.

Susan Komen for the Cure states, "Lesbian and bisexual women have a greater risk of breast cancer than other women, but this is not because of their sexual orientation.

"Rather, it is linked to risk factors for breast cancer that tend to be more common in these women (such as never having children or having them later in life). Lesbian women also tend to have higher rates of obesity and alcohol use, both of which can increase breast cancer risk. Early findings suggest women in a same sex-relationship may have a higher risk of breast cancer death (but not a higher risk of death from any cause) compared to women in a different-sex relationship." (accessed Feb, 2013).

However, as I stated earlier, this information is notwell researched and needs to be studied much more extensively. The bottom line is that women of sexual minority may have a higher risk or rate of getting breast cancer compared to heterosexual women, but research is lacking.

Women of sexual minority need to empower themselves and be encouraged by their health care providers to get screening mammograms, perform self breast exams, and get clinical breast exams on a regular basis, following the guidelines set forth for all women.

Being aware that breast cancer rates increase with age, family history and certain behaviors, regardless of sexuality, is essential for understanding your personal risk. Hopefully there will be more emerging research on WSW risks of breast cancer in the near future. Please talk to your health care provider and follow the current guidelines for breast cancer screening and detection.

Hutchinson M, Thompson A, Cederbaum J. (2006). Multisystem factors contributing to disparities in preventive health care among lesbian women. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. ;35(3):393-402.

Mravcak S. (2006). Primary care for lesbians and bisexual women. Am Fam Physician. 74(2):279-286.

Flemmer N, Doutrich D, Dekker L, & Rondeau D (2012). Creating a safe and caring health care context for women who have sex with women. Journal for Nurse Practitioners 8(6): 464-481.