Know your risk, doctor tells women

Breast, other cancers better treated when detected early

Theresa Knight, an obstetrician and gynecologist in St. Louis, Miss., says the best thing women can do to protect their health is know their risk. That’s especially true for lesbian women, she says, who are at a greater risk for both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“There are a couple of reasons for that,” Knight says. “One of the risks is if a women has not had children by menopause. Not having children and having a prolonged reproductive life increases the risk.”

But, the biggest risk is often societal.

“Lesbians, in general, have felt like they have been pushed out of the mainstream and sidelined,” Knight says of anti-LGBT prejudice. “For that reason, many lesbians are not very trusting of mainstream society and doctors are seen as very much mainstream. They aren’t willing to go and get regular check-ups or to follow through on some of the more mainstream recommendations because they feel like they’ve not been allowed to be in society.”

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Other risks are genetic. Those often target both men and women equally, she says.

“Gene mutations that increase risk for cancer are equally present in both men and women,” she says. “Though a woman may have a gene mutation that increases her risk for breast cancer, her brothers or her sons have an equal risk of carrying that gene mutation; there is a 60 percent chance that those genes will be passed down.”

Male risks include colon and the early onset of prostate cancer. For women, carrying gene mutations can be the cause of breast cancer and others affecting the uterine, ovaries and colon.

Over the past couple decades, awareness of cancer risk — especially breast cancer, for women — has become more commonplace.

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Part of the new awareness of cancer stems from researchers’ new discoveries of genetic and heritable risk. Knight says cancer was once thought to be a sign of longevity — that if a person lived long enough then cancer would become the leading cause of death.

“Because of that, people didn’t start looking for cancer until they got into their 50s,” she says. “We’ve discovered that people who get cancer in early age are people who have those genetic risks, whose immune systems don’t recognize these abnormal cancer cells and don’t eliminate them so they have a chance to take hold and grow.”

Familial history, Knight says, is often a good indicator of risk. She says women, as well as men, should discuss these issues and their family members’ medical histories with their doctors and other health providers.

“The most important thing is to be well-educated and empowered and never to think that ignorance is bliss,” she says. “Early detection of breast cancer means that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It is very survivable.” : :

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.