LGBT youth may be facing a higher cancer risk than their heterosexual peers, according to a recent report from City College of New York psychologist Dr. Margaret Rosario. The report is featured in February’s American Journal of Public Health, and notes that these youth are at a higher risk of getting cancer because they are more likely to engage in risk-oriented behaviors such as smoking and having multiple sexual partners.
The study pooled data from the 2005 and 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS), which is done every other year, and in examining 12 behaviors that were of the highest risk for cancer in sexual minorities, Dr. Rosario noted that of the nearly 66,000 youth that were surveyed in the YRBS, 7.6 percent identified themselves as being part of a sexual minority. The 12 cancer-risk behaviors examined included: smoking, drinking alcohol, having multiple sexual partners, lack of exercise, high body mass index (BMI), and beginning to have sex at an early age. Rosario and her research partners suggest that engagement in these risk behaviors open LGBT youth to a higher risk of having cancer later in life, though some reports note that a follow-up study would be needed to conclusively prove that an LGBT lifestyle does indeed lead to cancer.
Those youth who identify as LGBT, though, do appear to be at a higher risk for cancer. According to Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, LGBT men who engage in anal sex with other men are 80 times more likely to have cancer than their heterosexual peers, and lesbian and bisexual women may be more likely to have cancer because they are more likely than not to have children past the age of 30, smoke, drink alcohol, and eat foods that are higher in fat and be overweight. These are all risk factors that open both LGBT men and women up to increased cancer risk.
Rosario notes that her study, where she collaborated with researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Fenway Institute and Northwestern University, proves that early interventions should be in place for LGBT youth to help guide them into making safer, smarter choices. In addition, LGBT men and women both appear to be less likely to be screened for certain cancers, both because of a misconception that they aren’t at risk for certain cancers and because they are more marginalized in the health care system.
The Fenway Institute, for instance, notes that lesbian and bisexual women are up to 10 times less likely to be screened for cervical cancer because they may believe that they are not at risk for the condition. However, both LGBT women and heterosexual women are just as likely to get cancer. Director of Health Policy Research at the Fenway Institute, Sean Cahill, notes that efforts need to be made by clinicians and health care providers and advocates to reduce this risk among the LGBT cohort. Such a move has already been undertaken in some areas of the United Kingdom, where the National Health Service mentioned the LGBT sector of the population specifically as part of its Cancer Reform Strategy.
LGBT youth are at a higher risk of getting cancer due to engagement in cancer-risk behaviors, according to the recent study by Rosario and her research colleagues, but as the LGBT sector of the population ages, they continue to be at a greater risk of getting the deadly disease. Early intervention is proposed by Dr. Rosario and her peers to help spread the word about the importance of healthy behaviors across all populations; however, there continues to be a disparity in the LGBT cohort in terms of being screened for cancer on a regular basis. According to the Fenway Institute, the Affordable Care Act will improve health care access to all areas of the American population, which the institute says will certainly help in the fight against cancer.
By Christina St-Jean
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine