Top 10 Things Lesbian Women Should Discuss with their Healthcare Provider
Following are the health issues GLMA’s healthcare providers have identified as most commonly of concern for lesbian women. While not all of these items apply to everyone, it’s wise to be aware of these issues.
1. Breast cancer
Lesbian women are more likely to have risk factors for breast cancer, yet less likely to get screening exams due to past negative experiences with healthcare providers. This combination means that breast cancer may not be diagnosed early when the disease is most curable. A way to address this is to let your provider know you are interested in a discussion of when and how to begin screening for breast cancer.
Lesbian women may experience chronic stress from discrimination. This stress is worse for women who need to hide their sexual orientation as well as for lesbian women who have lost important emotional support because of their sexual orientation. Living with this stress can cause depression and anxiety. Healthcare providers may offer resources for emotional health and well-being. A good way to begin to address depression/anxiety is to tell your healthcare provider you would like to discuss your emotional health at your next visit.
3. Heart health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women. Smoking and obesity are the most common risk factors for heart disease among lesbian women. Talk to your provider about how often you should have medical exams for high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and diabetes. Healthcare providers can also offer tips on quitting smoking, increasing physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight.
4. Gynecological cancer
Lesbian women have higher risks for certain types of gynecological (GYN) cancers compared to heterosexual women. Having regular pelvic exams and Pap tests can detect cancers early and offer the best chance of cure. Talk to your healthcare provider about what gynecological cancer screenings may be right for you.
Research shows that lesbian women are more likely to be overweight or obese compared to heterosexual women. Obesity is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancers, and premature death. Lesbian women need competent and supportive advice about healthy living, eating, and exercise.
Research also shows that more lesbian than heterosexual women smoke cigarettes. It is easy to get addicted to smoking, even if it’s only done socially. Smoking has been associated with higher rates of cancers, heart disease, and emphysema — three major causes of death among women. Healthcare providers can assist with quitting smoking.
Heavy drinking and binge drinking are more common among lesbian women compared to heterosexual women. While one drink a day may be good for the heart, more than that can increase your risk of cancer, liver disease, and other health problems.
8. Substance use
Lesbian women may use drugs like cannabis or amphetamines more often than heterosexual women. This can be due to stress from homophobia, sexism, and/or discrimination. Lesbians need support to find healthy ways to reduce and cope with stress. If your drug use is interfering with work, school or relationships, your healthcare provider can connect you to help. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about strategies and local resources to help optimize your safety when using substances.
9. Intimate partner violence
Contrary to stereotypes, some lesbian women experience violence in their intimate relationships. However, healthcare providers do not ask lesbian women about intimate partner violence as often as they ask heterosexual women. A good healthcare provider should ask lesbian women about violence and be able to provide referrals to welcoming counseling and shelters when needed.
10. Sexual health
Lesbian women are at risk for the same sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as heterosexual women. Lesbians can give each other STIs by skin-to-skin contact, mucus membrane contact, vaginal fluids, and menstrual blood. It is important for sexually active lesbian women to be screened regularly for STIs by a healthcare provider, especially those that have more than one sexual partner.
Revised 2021. (2012 Author: Tonia Poteat, MMSc, PA-C, MPH, PhD)