Patients Can Help Change Discriminatory Experiences in Cancer Care

When LGBTQ+ patients speak up about discriminatory experiences in cancer care, it can help take back the power and pave the way for better care in the future.

When being treated for a disease like cancer, patients should know that they are more than just a passenger in their health care journey – especially if a clinician is making them feel unwelcomed or uncomfortable, explained Dr. Don S. Dizon.

“You are – at the very least – co-navigating this whole space,” Dizon said in an interview with CURE®’s sister publication, Cancer Network. “The docs aren’t here – and I’m not here – so that I feel good about helping you. My whole role is to help you live through something and live better afterwards. So in a sense, I’m working for you.”

Dizon is an oncologist specializing in women’s cancers at the Lifespan Cancer Institute at Rhode Island Hospital and professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He specializes in sexual health after cancer and advocates tirelessly for patient rights – especially for those within the LGBTQ+ community – both in his practice and on social media.

He said that clinicians need to ask sensitive questions, like if a person was born male or female, and what their gender is today. If someone is transgender, doctors should know about their history of gender-affirming surgeries or treatments.

“We need to do better for these individuals so that they’re not delaying access to care, and so that they are participating in our screening programs. I know that at the end of the day, we as oncologists all want to do the right thing – and this is a part of doing the right thing,” he said.

However, it is a harsh reality that many LGBTQ+ patients face disparities or discrimination in cancer care. Feeling disrespected by their health care providers, even if it only happens once, can put a major damper on the whole experience, which can already be traumatic.

Dizon even pointed out some of the physical infrastructures that may make some people feel unwelcomed, such as certain centers with titles such as the center for women’s oncology, or breast cancer treatment centers that are adorned in all pink, with female imagery and female breasts.

“That’s not necessarily going to be welcoming to the trans male who has breast cancer or the lesbian who has breast cancer, when all she sees are heterosexual partners,” Dizon said. “But it’s also not going to be welcoming to men with breast cancer, either… Cancer doesn’t have a gender.”

Read more: LGBTQ Cancer Survivors Report Lack of Social Support and Resources

Dizon uses his large social media presence to discuss topics like this, as well as sexuality after cancer.

“You know, you never do anything on social media with the intent of communicating with one group, because (social media) is open. I post openly,” Dizon said. “But what I do find is that I have colleagues on those social media, faces who I’ve never met before, and I have people in our communities who also comment and then I have folks who never knew this happened comment. So it’s that one little step I can take toward educating not only my peer group, but the rest of society that discrimination is real, and this is what it looks like.”

Patients who feel discrimination in the cancer care setting can also speak up about their experiences – and find a new care team – as a way of taking back some of the power in the instance of cancer, when many people feel powerless.

“If a patient is not being cared for in an environment that they consider friendly, supportive and equal… if it’s hostile and they’re going in with increasing anxiety, then I would encourage them to leave and explain to the leadership in the clinic,” Dizon said. “But go further up the chain and just state your experience.”

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