Group brings breast cancer out of the closet

By Kate Harper

Lesbians feel alienated by a health-care system which assumes they have husbands and children, and doesn’t understand their unique situation, say women who participated in the Lesbians and Cancer Dialogues, a staged reading which visited Centretown in late November.

Sarah Emery says there’s still an assumption in the healthcare system that everyone is heterosexual.

She says she’s frustrated because while in treatment for breast cancer, she was continually asked questions about her husband and children, which she doesn’t have.

“On a good day when you’re feeling strong, it may not bother you, but on a day when you’re feeling weak and vulnerable and you’ve just finished a round of chemo, it just knocks the wind out of your sails,” says Emery, one of the participants in the reading.

The Lesbians and Cancer Dialogues is a staged reading of quotes from lesbians with cancer. It is touring Ontario, and visited the Centretown Community Health Centre, where a large audience of men and women came to hear the survivors’ stories.

The Dialogues are the result of a two-year participatory research project examining the experiences of lesbian cancer patients.

Beginning in 2003, Chris Sinding, a health sciences and social work professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., gathered a team of researchers to interview lesbians with cancer.

Twenty-six women diagnosed with breast or gynecological cancer were asked how it affected their lives, sexuality, sense of themselves and their health-care. Sinding says she wanted to bring the issue “out of the closet.”

“I’m passionate about how experiences of marginalization affect our health and our healthcare,” she says. “This project is an opportunity to both learn more about that and understand more about oppression and how it works.”

Marie Robertson participated in the study and says she would have benefited from support.

In 1979, Robertson received a phone call from her doctor informing her she had cervical cancer.

Robertson says such an impersonal phone call meant she couldn’t talk to her doctor about her cancer, and she was uncomfortable discussing her sexual orientation. She says surgeons didn’t explain anything to her about her operation, and she had no support from the community, which left her feeling isolated and alone.

“It was a nightmare experience,” she says. “We didn’t even talk about my cancer. I didn’t know any lesbians who had cancer of any kind. I felt really uncomfortable and afraid. It would have been so great to talk to somebody else who was going through the same things.”

Sinding says most women indicated they hadn’t experienced homophobia within the healthcare system, but many said they felt alone because they didn’t know where to go for support.

“Many women said they hadn’t met other lesbians with cancer, and hadn’t had an opportunity to get down to the ‘meat and potatoes’ as one woman said, without having to censor themselves, or worry about how another person was going to react,” she says.

The Canadian Cancer Society is financing transportation costs for the Dialogues. Dora Masters of the society’s Ottawa chapter says she hopes by sponsoring the Lesbians and Cancer Dialogues, the society can reach out to different communities.

Holding the event at the Centretown Community Health Centre was ideal, because Ottawa’s community health and resource centres have spent the last two years increasing their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) cultural competence through training programs, says Donna Munro, spokeswoman for the centre.

She also says the Dialogues are a good opportunity to reach out to members of Ottawa’s GLBT community who might be dealing with cancer.

“We serve a large GLBT population,” Munro says. “I’m very curious and excited about what the gaps are, what could be improved and how we can make services more accessible.”