About Lesbians and Cancer
“There‟s actually a title that
says, Lesbians and Cancer – I
could not believe it when I saw
that those two words actually
existed in the same sentence. I
mean seriously, that‟s the first
time I‟ve ever seen it, you
~ Sarah (research participant)
The Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project
Table of Contents
The evolution, focus and values of this report
The lesbians who shared their stories
Demographic information about the research participants
Lesbians and Cancer: Coming Out Again
Lesbians with cancer „better off‟ in terms of support?
Support in lesbian communities: the challenge of fear
Isolation during cancer
Fallout from treatment
Loss of physical strength
Partnerships and Dating
Feeling „less than a wanted person‟
Vulnerability and inequality in partnerships
Families and finances
Families of origin
Lesbian positive care – ?
Heterosexism in cancer care
Pink and blue coloured glasses
; The possibility that she‟s a lesbian not considered
; Lesbian identity, needs, culture and social context not taken into account
; Lesbian identity and social context ignored and dismissed
Lesbians targeted, and denied standard care
Lesbian families and partnerships: outside the cancer care box
Heterosexism and patient self-advocacy
Cancer support services: no place for lesbians?
The fallout from heterosexism
Getting good care, and avoiding bad care
Screening for homophobia
Being out, and not being out
Looking for lesbian health professionals
Taking partners and friends along
More about being out, and not being out, in the cancer care system
„I never got a hiccup, but I never got much further either‟: What‟s missing in cancer care
Ideas for Change: the version with quotes and additional ideas Ideas for Change: the short version
Appendix A: How the Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project happened Appendix B: Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project – selected resources
? The Ontario Breast Cancer Community Research Initiative, June 2004
Citing this report:
Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project Team (2004). Coming Out About Lesbians
and Cancer. Toronto: Ontario Breast Cancer Community Research Initiative.
Many people and agencies created the Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project.
~ The project began
because lesbians and community agencies believed in it & wanted it to happen.
~ The project became possible
when the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Ontario Chapter funded it.
~ The project gathered momentum
when people in the queer, women‟s health and cancer communities started spreading the word.
~ The project became meaningful
when lesbians with breast and gynecological cancer spoke with us
about their experiences with cancer and cancer care.
Members of the Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project Team
Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project Partner Agencies
The 519 Church Street Community Centre
DAWN Ontario: DisAbled Women‟s Network Ontario
The Coalition for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Ontario
The Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto
The Ontario Breast Cancer Community Research Initiative
The Rainbow Health Network
Sherbourne Health Centre
Sunnybrook & Women‟s College Health Sciences Centre –
Social Work & Professional Advisory Committee
Willow Breast Cancer Support & Resource Services
Reviewers of the draft report
(research participants & members of the Project Team)
Danielle, Fran, Glenda, Jennifer, Kate, Laura, Lisa, Liz, Maureen, Mich?le, Pam, Patti, Pauline, Samantha, Teagan, Theresa
Ontario Breast Cancer Community Research Initiative
Lisa Barnoff, Research Facilitator
Pamela Grassau, Research Facilitator
Chris Sinding, Research Co-ordinator
This project is made possible with the generous support of the
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, Ontario Chapter
The evolution, focus and values of this report
When we first set out create this project, we had some ideas about why it was important. We know, of course, that homophobia and heterosexism exist in health care. We know, too, that lesbians have come together in strong ways to respond to suffering and fight injustice. We wanted to know about how oppression, and the strengths in lesbian communities, affected lesbians‟ experiences with breast and gynecological cancer. We also wondered if lesbians‟ particular feelings about our bodies, or the fact that we partner with women, shape what it is like to have a „women‟s cancer.‟
It wasn‟t until we were almost at the end of the project that we really understood why it was so important.
In an early interview for this research, we asked Maureen what she thought might be unique or particular about being a lesbian who has had breast cancer. This was part of her answer:
In my case I don‟t have other lesbians who are survivors around, or I don‟t know other lesbians who‟ve had breast cancer. And so I haven‟t really had a chance to explore other issues that could come up that I haven‟t thought of, or have gone, „oh, that‟s happened to me too but I didn‟t realize it was because I was a lesbian.‟ It might be quite revealing to discuss this issue with other women who
identify as lesbian.
Because lesbians with cancer in Ontario have not yet had a chance to come together to talk, ideas and language for saying „what‟s lesbian‟ about one‟s own cancer experiences are not yet easily available.
We learned in this research about the unnecessary isolation and struggle this can create for lesbians with cancer. It also creates a challenge for researchers.
A few of the research participants who read an early version of this report felt that „the lesbian
part‟ was not strong enough. They felt that the report did not make really obvious how being a lesbian mattered to a woman‟s cancer experience.
As we talked about this as a group, we reflected on the fact that the research interview was the first time many women had spoken in a full way about their experiences as a lesbian with cancer – and that this affected what they were able to say:
I think that for a lot of us that interview was perhaps the first time we‟d ever been asked really to think of how it did affect us as a lesbian and when I read the transcript of my own interview I felt that I sort of ducked some of the issues. I missed a bit of the point, not because the interview wasn‟t conducted beautifully, satisfactorily, sympathetically, but the more I think about this whole issue, the
more I realize yes I am a lesbian and that was never addressed at the time. And I could probably talk more about that now than I did when I was interviewed… [Liz]
[The interview ] was the first time I got lesbian and breast cancer in the first sentence. So that was just an emotional interview. And as I sit back and look at this process and what the project means to lesbians, I‟d like to be interviewed again, because I got the emotion out and I got my story out, and now what I need to talk about is being a lesbian with breast cancer. [Sarah]
Another woman, Teagan, said that reading other women‟s quotes, and having some time to reflect, changed how she understood her experience and what she wanted from the Research Report. Now she sees more aspects of her cancer experience being connected to being a lesbian. ”The lesbian voice [in the Research Report] needs to be louder”, she said.
So we made the lesbian voice louder. And we did this not just because we understand better why the interviews unfolded as they did, but also because what happened in the interviews, and what didn‟t happen, is part of a bigger picture where lesbians‟ experiences with cancer are rarely named, welcomed, or given space. In the bigger picture, systems and individuals, working with a heterosexual „default setting‟ (assuming everyone is heterosexual) render lesbians invisible, or create a situation where lesbians have to do the work of coming out, explaining their needs (again), and, sometimes, asserting their right to equal care. As became very clear in our research, this kind of work, demanding at the best of times, can be especially taxing when you have cancer.
So in this report, we affirm the value of doing all we can to make „the lesbian part‟ of lesbians‟
experiences with cancer visible.
And yet… One of the consequences of focusing intently on „what‟s lesbian‟ about lesbians‟ cancer experiences is that lesbians for whom „lesbian‟ is not a particular focus in terms of
identity and social life tend to be less well represented.
As well, highlighting aspects of the cancer experience linked to lesbian identity means that certain other aspects of having cancer – things that might in fact be very important to an
individual lesbian‟s experience – receive less attention. So, for instance, one woman we
interviewed said that many people focus on hair loss as the most difficult thing about chemotherapy:
They just don‟t know about all the other stuff, mouth sores, you know ... all the
other stuff that comes with it.
Interviewer: Hm. Like they’re missing out on the main part of the story there.
Right, and all the suffering that goes on. [Theresa]
In this report, we do overlook some of the suffering that goes on, and we miss some of the joys that women have found after cancer, the positive life changes they have made. Yet we trust it is clear from what we have just said, why we have made the choices we have to bring „what‟s lesbian‟ about lesbians‟ cancer experiences to the foreground.
While the central focus of this study was lesbians’ experiences with breast cancer, the Project Team decided early on that lesbians with gynecological cancers probably faced similar issues. Both for this reason and to increase the number of potential study participants, we promoted the study to lesbians with ‘women’s cancers’ – lesbians with either breast or gynecological
The Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project was a community-based participatory study conducted in Ontario, Canada in 2003. We interviewed twenty-six lesbians diagnosed with a „woman‟s
cancer‟ (twenty-two with breast cancer, three with gynecological cancer, one with both) about their experiences of treatment, cancer care, and support, and their feelings and ideas about changes in identity, body, sexuality and relationships.
In this report we focus directly on „what‟s lesbian‟ about lesbians having breast and gynecological cancer. The reason for this is simple: we haven‟t found this knowledge
anywhere else. We read about „the experience of breast cancer‟ in books, watch it in videos, hear about it in support groups… yet lesbian cancer realities have, with rare exceptions, gone unnamed.
COMING OUT AGAIN
For lesbians, being public about cancer has parallels with coming out as a lesbian. Cancer and lesbian identity have historically evoked shame, and we share a long tradition of hiding both. Often neither identity is immediately obvious to others, and so lesbians, and all women with cancer, face ongoing choices about „coming out.‟ Being public about having cancer, and about being a lesbian, is still a risk.
Because of its echoes with coming out as a lesbian, the social consequences of „coming out about cancer‟ may be especially complicated and painful for lesbians with cancer. At the same
time, lesbians have some familiarity with the feeling of being „other‟, and as communities we have developed strategies for responding to marginalization and loss. We can see from this research how these strategies can support lesbians with cancer.
As well, it seems that the AIDS movement serves as a kind of touchstone for lesbians with cancer, an example of what‟s possible in terms of support, awareness and activism. That example is one we draw from in a positive way, and at the same time it shows us how much more we could have for lesbians with cancer.
SUPPORT AND ISOLATION
Participants in the Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project frequently spoke of receiving strong support from partners and friends. Support in lesbian community can be emotionally engaged, competent and well organized – immensely sustaining for individual lesbians and a kind of
Feeling strongly supported was connected with participants‟ sense that women, and particularly
lesbians, felt like „it could be me.‟ The fact that participant‟s partners are women and could be diagnosed with a woman‟s cancer was a source of understanding and connection. The „could be me‟ feeling also seemed to draw lesbians into support teams for women they did not know
Yet „could be me‟ worked against lesbians as well. As some research participants‟ experiences revealed, ideals of support in lesbian community do not always unfold in real life. Participants said that lesbians, witnessing another lesbian diagnosed with breast or gynecological cancer, sometimes identify with her in ways that make support awkward or impossible.
In a more general way, the fear generated by cancer, and the lack of dialogue about the illness in lesbian communities, contributes to the isolation of lesbians with cancer. Our „phobia‟ about cancer – perhaps especially strong in relation to women‟s cancers – affects the support lesbian
communities can offer.
Lesbians with breast cancer may be further isolated if they live in areas where homophobia goes relatively unchallenged, or where lesbian community is scarce or lacks diversity to begin with. Not having enough money – for instance, to pay for self-care resources – can isolate
lesbians who are poor from lesbians with more resources. Experiences that are „out of synch‟ (because of age, for instance) are also linked with isolation.
FALLOUT FROM TREATMENT: HAIR LOSS, LOSS OF PHYSICAL STRENGTH,
BREAST LOSS, SEXUALITY
It became clear from this research that ideas society has about lesbians – ideas about our
appearance, bodies, sexuality – and ideas lesbians have about ourselves, affect how lesbians
experience the fallout from cancer treatment.
Queer culture and community lends hair loss a wider range of meanings for women than does the dominant culture, and this can be a source of strength for some lesbians with cancer. Yet while lesbian identity might allow some women to buffer the difficult impact of hair loss, or even to find power in it, hair loss can also disrupt identity and be traumatic and disempowering for lesbians.
Risking a stereotype, we can suggest that women‟s physical strength and competence are especially valued in lesbian culture (in contrast with norms of femininity valued in the dominant culture). Especially outside urban centres, sports teams are a rare safe public space for lesbians. A cancer diagnosis and the effects of treatment can challenge a lesbian‟s valued identity around physical strength and fitness; it can also disrupt her connection with lesbian community.
The beliefs we hold in lesbian community about breasts are contradictory, and linked with our relationship to societal ideas about what woman should look like. We heard the belief that lesbians with cancer are less affected by breast loss than heterosexual women; we also heard that breast loss is especially difficult to lesbians because breasts matter more to us than they do to heterosexual women. Our beliefs about breasts sometimes suggest there is one „right way‟
for every lesbian with cancer to deal with breast loss.
Woman‟s cancers can have unique affects on lesbian sexuality. In very basic ways, women‟s bodies mirror one another; when two women are being sexual after one has had a woman‟s