Cancer Screening is the first step to changing the course of this formidable disease, but some populations like the LGBTQ2S+ community still struggle with bias, anxieties and misinformation that prevent them from critical screening at all ages.
Unfortunately, ignoring or skipping cancer screening can lead to serious complications. Simply put, it can be difficult to find health information that speaks to the realities of our LGBTQ2S+ friends and family and some still feel that health care settings may not be inclusive or welcoming.
The Canadian Cancer Society notes that members of LGBTQ2S+ communities are less likely to have a family doctor and more likely to delay seeking medical care or screening because of actual or perceived discrimination. Moreover, transgender individuals may find intimate procedures particularly challenging and lesbian women may have been told or believe that they do not need cervical screening.
For Oshawa resident Jane, spreading awareness about cancer screening is an important passion project that helps her channel her energetic spirit during cancer treatment. The dedicated mom, wife and new doting grandma also volunteers as a patient advisor with the R.S. McLaughlin Durham Regional Cancer Centre (DRCC).
After visiting the gynecologist about her IUD (intrauterine contraceptive device), Jane’s doctor discovered an aggressive tumor on her cervix. Between 2015 and today, Jane’s body has gone through the ringer. Her cervical cancer spread to her kidney, liver, lung and bones. She has had over 100 doses of radiation, 2 surgeries, countless procedures and takes a laundry list of medications daily.
She takes great pride in sharing her story to spread the word about the importance of screening, particularly for cervical cancer. Jane passionately agrees that spreading education and information every day, and especially during Pride Month, about the significance of PAP tests is critical because members of the LGBTQ2S+ community tend to screen less often, if at all, compared to heterosexual and non-trans individuals.
“Before discovering my cervical cancer, I had skipped a few PAP tests. I just didn’t think about it. Now I think about it all the time,” shares Jane. “My wife and I have lesbian and trans friends who believe they don’t need PAP tests because they aren’t involved with the opposite sex. It’s wild to me. Everyone needs to get checked! I tell everyone who will listen!”
“I like to say, think outside your bra, check your box!” laughs Jane. “But the truth is, we should be paying attention to our whole body. I know it’s scary and uncomfortable but get ahead of it. You only have one body and cancer doesn’t care who you are or how you live your life.”
Lakeridge Health and the DRCC played a big part in Jane’s cancer journey and she speaks highly of her entire care team along the way. She is now working with a multidisciplinary team including nurses, medical oncologists and a palliative care physician to tackle her Stage 4 cervical cancer. Right now she’s commuting into the city for a specialized drug made possible through clinical trial.
“If I can save one life with my own fight, I’m happy,” says Jane. “Please see a doctor for a PAP! It’s 20 minutes of swallowing your pride and it can save your life!!”
Her experience in the health care system has been predominantly positive, but she knows this isn’t the case for many.
Blake, an Oshawa resident who is currently in Winnipeg training with CN Rail has a unique perspective to cancer screening. After undergoing total gender reassignment surgery a few years ago, the 26 year-old no longer has breast tissue or gynecological organs but that doesn't mean cancer screening is no longer relevant.
“I understand the importance of cancer screening, regardless of who you are, but I would be lying if I didn’t say my past experiences in a few hospitals deter me from coming in with a concern,” shares Blake.
After two uncomfortable and humiliating encounters at two separate hospitals, Blake finally landed in a safe space with their family doctor in Durham Region. “I was desperate and the receptionist at my family doctor’s office came to the rescue. She took my concerns seriously and I felt like I had someone in my corner”.
When asked about what could be done to support trans and non-binary individuals using the hospital system, Blake explains that their identity shouldn’t be the focus, rather about what’s going on with a person’s body whether it be an a general health concern, illness or injury.
“There’s a lot of anxiety involved in not knowing what to expect and if something comes up in the future, I’m not sure if I’ll be quick to get it checked out and I wish that were different”.
Knowing bias, judgement and discrimination still exist in many health care services, it comes as no surprise that cancer screening rates are low in young people within the LGBTQ2S+ community.
For the trans community in particular, the process of cancer screening can be at odds with gender identity and can prompt legitimate concerns about transphobia. These complications can create a major deterrent to screening for breast, chest or cervical cancer such as having regular mammograms every two years after 50 years of age or PAP tests every three years for those age 25 and older.
For individuals like Blake who have had a hysterectomy, PAP tests are relevant if the cervix is still intact. If abnormal PAP results were present before the procedure, screening should be done until three tests are documented as ‘normal’ in a row.
There’s still a lot of work to be done through education in the health care system and community to support individuals like Blake and the larger LGBTQ2S+ community. At Lakeridge Health, the Regional Cancer Screening & Prevention team works diligently to spread information to ALL members of Durham Region and partner with key organizations that provide a safe space for people who may be nervous about the topic.
“Cancer screening can find cancer when it is small and easiest to treat”, explains Shannon Bourke, Manager, Cancer Screening at Lakeridge Health. “It’s important to make regular cancer screening a priority for your health so you can catch any issues early and give yourself the best chance for a cure.”
Shannon and her colleagues know the hospital can be an intimidating place for many and the team partners with a number of community organizations. “Durham Community Health Centre (formerly known as Carea) has some excellent services available to support LGBTQ2S+ individuals and their cancer screening.”
Having the tools and technology available to screen, diagnosis and treat cancer quickly is imperative to providing quality local health care to everyone. Thanks to Our Cancer Campaign, key diagnostic and surgical equipment is being funded at Lakeridge Health’s Oshawa location. In the event that cancer screening shows an area of concern, the expert team at our Hospital have the equipment they need to tackle cancer cells or create a treatment plan right away.
For example, when an individual with a cervix finds out they have abnormal PAP results, the next step is a referral to our Hospital for a variety of procedures to treat the cancerous cells. Our highly-skilled team of gynecologists and surgeons have tools available like lasers, colposcopes and even surgical robotics thanks to donor support from the Durham Region community.
To share your own story, or make a donation to advance cancer screening and treatment please visit www.OurCancer.ca.
For more information on screening in LGBTQ2S+ Communities please visit The Canadian Cancer Society at www.cancer.ca.