Women who have sex with women and lesbians are at increased risk for certain types of chronic diseases, cancers, and mental health problems. Below is a list of the key health concerns lesbians and women who have sex with women should consider discussing with their doctor.
#1: Breast Cancer
Women who have sex with women are at increased risk for breast cancer. Several risk factors contribute to this risk, including the fact that many lesbians do not get routine mammograms or do breast self-exams. This leads to preventable delays in detecting breast cancer.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for breast cancer as generally recommended, based on their personal and family medical history. They should also be shown how to do a breast self-exam.
#2: Gynecological (female-related) Cancers
Lesbians are at increased risk for certain types of gynecological cancers. Many women do not realize they should have a yearly gynecological exam, even if they are not having sex with men. These exams can help diagnose many forms of gynecologic cancers in their early stages.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for gynecological cancers every year.
Women who have sex with women are more likely to be obese than other women. Obesity can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and early death.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for obesity. They should have exercise and diet plans tailored for them.
#4: Substance Use
Lesbians abuse substances at higher rates compared to others. Substances used include amphetamines (including crystal meth), marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine. Use of these drugs has been linked to higher rates of HIV transmission through impaired decision making during sex. Although the long-term effects are unknown, evidence suggests that their prolonged use of these substances is likely to have serious negative health consequences.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for substance use and get appropriate education and risk-based counseling.
#5: Depression and Anxiety
Women who have sex with women have higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to others. These problems are often worse for women who are closeted or don’t have adequate social support. As a result, lesbian teenagers and young adults have an increased risk of suicide. However, culturally sensitive mental health services can help prevent and treat these problems.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, and should seek appropriate mental health services as needed.
#6: Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
Women who have sex with women are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. These include infections for which there are effective cures (gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, pubic lice or crabs), as well as those for which treatments are more limited (HIV, hepatitis A, B, or C, human papilloma virus). Safe sex, including the use of barriers, is the key to preventing STDs.
Women who have sex with women who are sexually active should be routinely screened for sexually transmitted diseases.
#7: Colon Cancer
All women, including lesbians, are at risk for colon cancer. However, because many lesbians do not have access to cancer screening services, they may be at increased risk for death and other complications from this treatable disease. All lesbians should have regular colon cancer screenings.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for colon cancer as generally recommended, based on their personal and family medical history.
Studies show that women who have sex with women have higher rates of alcohol abuse and dependence. Although limited alcohol use, such as one drink a day, may not be unhealthy, any use can be a problem for women with an alcohol-related disorder. Alcohol abuse is a common problem among lesbians and can increase the risk for being injured or becoming the victim of a crime.
All women who have sex with women should be screened for alcohol dependence and abuse, and alcohol use should be limited.
Lesbians smoke and use tobacco products at much higher rates than others. This can lead to a number of serious health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, lung disease, and lung cancer.
Women who have sex with women should be screened for tobacco use and offered tobacco cessation programs.
#10: Heart Disease
Nearly half of all women will die from heart disease, which is largely preventable. Two of the most common risk factors for heart disease are smoking and obesity, and these are common problems among lesbians. All lesbians should have their blood pressure and cholesterol checked as generally recommended.
Women who have sex with women should have their blood pressure checked at least once a year and their cholesterol checked at least every 5 years.
For information only. Not to replace the advice of your health care provider. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Medical Center. All rights reserved. HC 1155 (06/2012)