Shame on Melissa Etheridge for using her privilege and public platform to blame herself for her breast cancer and, by extension, blame all lesbian and bisexual women for our disproportionate burden of the disease. Cancer is a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of rogue cells. Period. Of course, there are some things, like genetics and tobacco use, that increase the likelihood of occurrence. But Etheridge didn't cause her own breast cancer, and she didn't make it disappear once she "got [her] body back into balance." She had a genetic mutation that made her more susceptible, she used to be a chain smoker, and, considering that not everyone in those categories gets cancer, she was also unlucky. Then she had surgery (a lumpectomy) and five rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to get rid of her cancer. She was not cured by simply fixing her diet any more than she caused her cancer by eating poorly.
In a recent article in AARP: The Magazine, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow also used their soapbox to call cancer a "gift." Really? As the founder and executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network, I tend to think of the disease as terrifying, time-consuming, disfiguring, expensive and isolating. Having just mourned the death of my fourth dear friend to cancer, I think of the disease as more of a thief than a benefactor. Last night I had dinner with a friend, a transgender man who is facing down the end of his life and wanted to talk to me about hospice. Melissa Etheridge tramples my grief and my work by thanking cancer for waking her up to her poor diet and stress level.
Cancer excessively punishes LGBT people. And as a group, lesbians have the densest cluster of risk factors for breast cancer. Moreover, because of multiple barriers to accessing health care, including previous discrimination and lower rates of health-insurance coverage, we fall behind in our cancer screenings, like mammograms. Once diagnosed with cancer, many lesbians face additional challenges that our heterosexual sisters are spared, like invisibility, healthcare providers' rejection of our families of choice and lack of information about cancer's impact on lesbian sexuality, fertility and relationships.
What do we need from the people who get airtime, ink and blog space? We need plenty, and Melissa Etheridge blew the chance to help us, instead offering self-indulgent and incorrect information. We need encouragement to take better care of our bodies, yes, but that has to go beyond diet to also include cancer screenings. She could have suggested that we harness the power of our friendship networks and go in packs for mammograms, offering each other support and encouragement during the scary procedure. Instead of feeding individualized victim blaming, I wish she'd spoken out about the social determinants of our health, specifically how discrimination directly impacts LGBT bodies. We are not just a product of our personal habits. We are a community of people who need those with a voice to work for change for all of us.