All Women Not Created Equal

Medical care and research must take into account peoples' sexual orientations when studying sex-related health issues. When it comes to breast cancer: Gay women have higher risks than heterosexual women.

By Camille Chatterjee, published March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The difference between lesbians and straight women goes beyond sexual orientation. According to a new study, gay women seem to be at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

When examining medical records of both lesbians and heterosexuals between 1995 and 1997, Stephanie Roberts, M.D., medical director at Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services in San Francisco, and Sue Dibble, RN, an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, found, not surprisingly, that lesbians had had fewer pregnancies—a risk factor for cancer because it means that they go through more menstrual cycles and thus are exposed to more estrogen over their lifetime than women who have children. The most worrisome finding: gay women reported having had more breast biopsies, which are a serious risk factor for the development of breast cancer.

This revelation may be surprising to some health care professionals, but not to Dibble and her colleagues. "People have thought all along, at least in the lesbian community, that lesbians may be different from heterosexual women in many ways; health risks are just one area," Dibble explains. "We're only now getting the funding to study this." Doctors and patients, she says, should realize that their medical care must take into account people with different sexual orientations, just as it should people of different genders, races and ages.