Health concerns for lesbians and women who have sex with women

1. Breast Cancer

Lesbians have a greater concentration of risk factors for this cancer than any subset of women in the world. Combine this with the fact that many lesbians over 40 do not get routine mammograms, do breast self-exams, or have a clinical breast exam, and the cancer may not be diagnosed early when it is most curable. Click here for information on breast self-exam.

2. Depression/Anxiety

Lesbians have been shown to experience chronic stress from homophobic discrimination. This stress is compounded by the need that some still have to hide their orientation from parents, friends or professors, and by the fact that many lesbians have lost the important emotional support others get from their families due to alienation stemming from their sexual orientation. At Brown, Psychological Services can help with these problems.

3. Gynecological Cancer

Lesbians have higher risks for some of the gynecologic cancers. What they may not know is that having a yearly exam by a gynecologist can significantly facilitate early diagnosis associated with higher rates of curability if they ever develop. Click here for more information on gynecological exams.

4. Fitness

Research confirms that lesbians have higher body mass than heterosexual women. Obesity is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancers, and premature death. What lesbians need is competent advice about healthy living and healthy eating, as well as healthy exercise. Our nutrition section includes information on healthy eating, sports nutrition, eating concerns and campus resources.

5. Substance Use

Research indicates that illicit drugs may be used more often among lesbians than heterosexual women. There may be added stressors in lesbian lives from homophobic discrimination, and lesbians need support from each other and from health care providers to find healthy releases, quality recreation, stress reduction, and coping techniques.

6. Tobacco

Research also indicates that tobacco and smoking products may be used more often by lesbians than by heterosexual women. Whether smoking is used as a tension reducer or for social interactions, addiction often follows and is associated with higher rates of cancers, heart disease, and emphysema - the three major causes of death among all women.

7. Alcohol

Alcohol use and abuse may be higher among lesbians. While research has found that 1 drink a day may be good for the heart and not increase cancer or osteoporosis risks, heavier drinking can put you at risk for being injured or being a victim of crime.

8. Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is reported to occur in about 11 percent of lesbian homes, about half the rate of 20 percent reported by heterosexual women. But the question is where do lesbians go when they are battered? Shelters need to welcome and include battered lesbians, and offer counseling to the offending partners.

9. Osteoporosis

The rates and risks of osteoporosis among lesbians have not been well characterized yet. Getting enough calcium, not being underweight and doing weight-bearing exercise as well as the avoidance of tobacco and alcohol are the mainstays of prevention. Getting bone density tests every few years to see if medication is needed to prevent fracture is also important. Click here more more information on bone health.

10. Heart Health

Smoking and obesity are the most prevalent risk factors for heart disease among lesbians; but all lesbians need to also get an annual clinical exam because this is when blood pressure is checked, cholesterol is measured, diabetes is diagnosed, and exercise is discussed. Preventing heart disease, which kills 45% of women, should be paramount to every clinical visit.

Adapted from Katherine A. O'Hanlan, MD
Former President, GLMA and Co-Founder, Lesbian Health Fund

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