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Lesbian and bisexual women warned of deadly cervical cancer risk

Lesbian and bisexual women urged to come forward for HPV testing and not to take no for an answer from healthcare professionals
Microscope image of the cervical gland.

Lesbian and bisexual women are risking their lives because they are not being tested for cervical cancer – and often doctors even tell them they don't need to be.

It's one of the issues LGBT health experts want to highlight as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust marks Cervical Screening Awareness Week (CSAW).

Other lesbian and bi women believe they may not be at risk – or are worried about being tested because they don't want to reveal their sexual orientation.

But actually HPV (human papillomavirus), the virus that leads to cervical cancer, is transmitted through skin to skin contact. And so any woman with an intact cervix who is sexually active – gay or straight – should attend for regular cervical screening.

Caroline Jones, a lesbian who was 58 when diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2010 spoke to Gay Star News. She has survived after intensive chemotherapy to treat her.

‘The earlier you catch it the better; it can make all the difference,' she said 'You should attend regularly for your screenings and don’t take no for an answer.’

She said women had nothing to fear from disclosing their sexual orientation to healthcare professionals – in western countries at least. Doctors and nurses had always been very friendly and welcoming to her and happy to answer her questions.

‘Don’t forget doctors and nurses are LGBT too,’ she advises

She encouraged all women to come forward: ‘Set your fears aside. This is your life. It is your human right to be treated.’

Robert Music, director of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, told us: 'Lesbian and bisexual women are at risk of contracting HPV which is the cause of 99.7% of cervical cancers. Therefore all eligible women, regardless of their sexual orientation, should have regular cervical screening.

‘Every day nine women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and three women will lose their lives [in the UK]. It’s paramount that when invited, women take up this life-saving test.’

And Jennifer S Smith, of the US-based international Cervical Cancer-Free Coalition, said it is important to remember that all women who have an intact cervix are at risk of cervical cancer and should be screened regularly.  

‘HPV can be easily transmitted between women and lesbian and bisexual women should have the same screening as heterosexual ones,’ she said.

Jo’s Cervival Cancer Trust runs the week to promote the importance of cervical screening and to raise awareness of how screening can help to prevent cervical cancer.

Understanding of cervical screening, the causes of cervical abnormalities, cervical cancer and its treatment is low, and in the UK 20% of women do not attend their cervical screening.

There are particular problems with lesbian and bisexual women accessing cervical screening.

Stonewall research, with over 6,000 lesbian and bisexual women, found lesbian and bisexual women were often excluded from routine testing for cervical cancer.

The Stonewall survey also these women were reluctant to be honest about their sexual orientation with healthcare professionals as they feared stigma and discrimination.

Research by the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, carried out with the University of Salford between 2010 and 2013, looked at the barriers experienced by lesbian and bisexual women attending cervical screening.

Many women said they had been wrongly advised they did not need screening and some had even been refused screening as they only had female partners.

Women respondents also said healthcare professionals had asked inappropriate questions or had wrongly assumed they were heterosexual.

Almost all the women (93%) said healthcare professionals needed more training on the healthcare needs of lesbian and bisexual women.

The Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) are launching a new online training toolkit aimed at cervical screening professionals.

Annie Emery, head of services for LGF, said: ‘Research in 2009 found HPV responsible for 99% of cervical cancer cases, can be passed on through skin to skin contact, and therefore any woman who is of eligible age and sexually active, regardless of sexual orientation, needs to attend for regular cervical screens as the best protection against a cervical cancer diagnosis.’

The toolkit is the culmination of the LGF’s Are You Ready For Your Screen Test? campaign. The campaign aims to increase the rates of lesbian and bisexual women regularly attending cervical screening.

The LGF online training toolkit dispels the myth that lesbian and bisexual women do not need cervical screening.

The toolkit for health professionals:

  • Lists reasons why lesbian and bisexual women need to attend screening.
  • Highlights the wrong advice women may have been given in the past.
  • Explains how to rephrase common questions to make them inclusive.
  • Features real-life stories.
  • Contains links to further resources.

The online training will lead to an improved patient experience for lesbian and bisexual women by educating cervical screening professionals about issues specific to lesbian and bisexual women.

Cervical Screening Awareness Week (CSAW) is a UK-wide initiative led by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust from 9 to 15 June.

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