It's an interesting question. And it's one we still can't answer.
Why? Because too many researchers just don't think to ask -- or are afraid to ask -- study participants a question about sexual orientation. And because there hasn't been much money put into research that specifically focuses on the LGBT community's health.
This has long been well understood by organizations like the National Coalition for LGBT Health, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and the National LGBT Cancer Network. And it was recently underscored in an Institute of Medicine report on LGBT health, which called for the "implementation of a research agenda to advance knowledge and understanding of LGBT health."
The questions about whether lesbians are at greater risk of developing breast cancer has been discussed and debated since 1993, when Suzanne Haynes published a research paper suggesting that lesbians might have as a high as a 1 in 3 chance of getting breast cancer, compared with the 1 in 8 risk of women in general.
This has nothing to do with being a lesbian per se. Rather, it stems from the idea that lesbians are more likely to have some of the known risk factors for breast cancer: late first pregnancy or no pregnancy and obesity. (There is no reason to believe lesbians are more likely to have other known risk factors, like family history, early first period, late menopause, HRT use, or exposure to radiation as a child or teenager as treatment for Hodgkin's disease, radiation of the thymus, or radiation for acne.)
It would also be easier to answer this question if we actually knew what causes breast cancer. Right now, the majority of women who develop breast cancer, whether they are lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual, have none of the known risk factors. This means that we are missing some important causes that have yet to be identified. We desperately need to expand our studies beyond the standard risk factors into environmental exposures, and other novel possibilities. For example, could breast cancer be caused by a virus? No one knows.
That's why I started the Love/Avon Army of Women. I wanted to recruit an army of volunteers of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and health histories who are willing to be part of the research that will get us the answers we need. I never wanted to have to hear another researcher say he would have conducted his study in people, instead of mice or rats, but he just didn't know where to find them!
We've already recruited almost 370,000 volunteers who are willing to be there when the researchers call, and we need even more! Over 70 percent of the women who have signed up for the Army of Women have not had breast cancer. They have joined because they want us to end this disease and want to take part in the research that will get us there.
It costs nothing to sign up. And we won't bombard you with mail. We'll just send you emails about studies that are open, and if you meet the study criteria and you might want to take part, you email us back. It's really that easy!
Right now, we're actually recruiting for a study of lesbians who have been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer that involves a telephone interview about your experience! Sound like something you qualify for and might want to do? Get over to the Army of Women website and sign up!
Soon, we will be launching the Health of Women Study, which will investigate all the potential factors that might be involved in developing breast cancer through an ongoing questionnaires -- and we will need lesbian and transgender participants.
If the LGBT community is going to demand more research on our health, then we need LGBT people to step up and take part in this research! Be part of the solution. Join the Love/Avon Army of Women.
Follow Susan M. Love on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrSusanLove