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Cancer Diagnosis Rates Differ for Gays, Heterosexuals

Study Shows Gay Men Have Twice the Odds of Being Diagnosed With Cancer as Heterosexual Men
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 9, 2011 -- A new study sheds light on the differences in cancer prevalence and survival rates in gay, lesbian, and bisexual populations compared with heterosexuals.

It found that gay men had nearly twice the odds of being diagnosed with cancer as heterosexual males. In women there was no significant difference in cancer prevalence by sexual orientation. But cancer survivors who were lesbians were twice as likely to describe their health as fair or poor, and bisexual women were 2.3 times as likely compared with heterosexual females.

Prior to this point, there's been a lack of information about sexual orientation and detection rates and health status of cancer survivors, since cancer registries do not break out data by sexual orientation.

To create one of the earliest snapshots of this population, Boston researchers used data from the California Health Interview Survey. Done every two years by telephone, this large statewide survey asks participants about sexual orientation along with other questions about their health and medical history. 

The analysis pooled data from surveys done in 2001, 2003, and 2005. The sample looked at adults who were age 18 to 65. It included nearly 70,000 heterosexual women along with more than 900 lesbians and 1,100 bisexual women. Among the men, more than 49,000 were heterosexual, nearly 1,500 were gay, and about 600 were bisexual.

The study is published in the May 9 online edition of Cancer.

Sexual Orientation and Cancer Rates

More than 7,200 women and nearly 3,700 men reported being diagnosed with cancer as an adult. When the scientists looked at specific cancer types, they found some differences by sexual orientation.

Gay men had significantly lower rates of prostate cancer but higher rates of other cancers.

Uterine cancer was the most prevalent among lesbians. Bisexual women had cervical cancer rates twice that of other women.

Cancer survivors are people who are living with, through, or beyond a diagnosis of cancer. As of January 2007, the latest year with available numbers, the U.S. had an estimated 11.7 million cancer survivors.

Although the study's findings represent self-reported data from one state rather than a national sample and did not include cancer survivors older than 65, the results shed light on cancer trends by sexual orientation and the unique needs of survivors. 

"This information can be used for the development of services for the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population," says study researcher Ulrike Boehmer, PhD, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. For gay men, programs may focus on cancer prevention and early detection and in lesbian and bisexual women, services might emphasize improving the well-being of cancer survivors, she suggests.

It's also unclear to what extent lifestyle factors might influence cancer risk in this population, and whether discrimination and social support may affect the quality of life of cancer survivors.

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