Although it only affects around 7.8 women out of 100,000 (in the United States), cervical cancer, like all forms of the disease, is a terrifying prospect. It’s why women are encouraged to get regular screenings for the human papillomavirus (HPV) as that is the common cause of cervical cancer. Most women go for pap smears (the test that looks for HPV) once every three years.
However, in a shocking study published by the University of Washington School of Nursing in January, it seems that these routine tests are not doing enough for lesbian women and that actions by doctors greatly increase the risk of lesbians contracting the disease in comparison to their straight peers. The findings are shocking and suggest that the way doctors think about cervical cancer must change – quickly.
The study explains that one of the biggest reasons why lesbians are at great risk is because doctors don’t understand the disease well enough. HPV is usually transmitted via heterosexual sex (when both partners are cisgendered) and so if the patient is a lesbian, many doctors assume that they won’t need a screening. Of course not only can HPV be transmitted via other forms of sex (including via oral or genital contact and intercourse with toys) but 77% of lesbians have slept with men and so all round, lesbians are just as much risk as heterosexual women.
This misinformation also trickles down to the patients themselves who don’t know that they need to go for regular screenings as they too believe that HPV is only transmitted via intercourse with (cis) men. And on top of that, many lesbians are reluctant to attend screenings or even see a doctor regularly due to fear of discrimination – possibly fuelled by poor experiences in the past.
The University of Washington’s associate professor of biobehavioral nursing and health systems, Joachim Voss has detailed one simple way of making treatment more inclusive to lesbians:
“If we are serious about reducing the rates of cervical cancer in lesbians, an unbiased health assessment by a provider must ask the question: ‘Do you have sex with men, women or both?’”
He says that a focus on the sexual practices rather than the sexual orientation (and the label) will put patients at ease and that healthcare providers will who make it known that they are knowledgeable about same-sex practices can make things less awkward and “allow lesbians to receive sexual orientation-specific preventative measures and judgment-free treatments.”