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Hamilton cancer screening bus tries to reach LGBTQ communities

Getting tests for cervical, colon and breast cancer can be uncomfortable for anyone, and it can get even more complicated when patients feel their doctors may not understand their gender or sexual identities.

Screen for Pride! event hopes to lower barriers to screening for LGBTQ people

"We don't want to keep building state-of-the-srt facilities we want to detect cancer before it happens," said Michael Sharer, president of Cancer Care Ontario, of the mobile facility. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Hamilton's cancer screening bus is holding a special screening day next Saturday for members of the LGBTQ community. Getting tests for cervical, colon and breast cancer can be uncomfortable for anyone, and it can get even more complicated when patients feel their doctors may not understand their gender or sexual identities.

"This population has low screening rates and the coach can offer a safe place for cancer screening," said Dr. Meghan Davis, the medical lead on Hamilton's Screen for Life coach.

The tests are important. A female-to-male transgender person, for example, could be vulnerable to cervical cancer before undergoing reassignment surgery to remove the uterus and the cervix, and so should be receiving Pap tests. 

Lesbian women may think because they don't have sex with men that they aren't at risk for the HPV virus that can cause cervical cancer.

For these and a variety of other reasons, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender communities are underrepresented in getting regular cancer screens, like Pap smears or colorectal tests.

Institutional, informational, personal barriers

Davis said the barriers often fall into three categories: 

  • Institutional: Some patients may be put off or feel excluded by a doctor or clinic's intake form that uses a "binary gender choice," Davis said. A transgender person may not know which services to seek, if they're offered in gender-specific terms. A lab may be confused by a Pap test coming in with a "M" marked for male on the form. 

  • Informational: The realm of treating LGBTQ patients is not completely familiar to all providers, and they may not be sensitive. Patients may have experiences where they are educating their providers about their sexual/gender orientation before the treatment can even start.

  • Personal: Patients may have had negative experiences trying to access healthcare in the past.

There are materials for family doctors to familiarize themselves with how to treat patients from these communities — using inclusive language, or asking a transgender patient what words are preferred for private parts, for example. 

But in the meantime, the cancer screening bus aims to meet people who aren't otherwise getting these screenings, and help them feel comfortable, safe and included in the process, Davis said. 

It's the bus's mandate to go into areas or communities where screening rates are low, and help people overcome language, social, economic and cultural barriers to getting screened for cancer. ​

The team has been putting up flyers at popular businesses and clubs, sharing about the event on social media and encouraging LGBTQ people who have already been screened to spread the word with their friends. 

The bus will be parked from 12 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15 at the North Hamilton Community Health Centre.

Here's a video featuring some people from the LGBTQ community talking about the need for screening and their experiences being screened, by the Canadian Cancer Society:

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