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Malecare – Support for Gay Cancer Survivors

Malecare – Support for Gay Cancer Survivors
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By Darryl Mitteldorf LCSW

When you hear those words from your doctor, “You have cancer,” you ask lots of questions. But one question almost no one asks is: How do you tell people that you have cancer?

Cancer affects more than your health; it throws your whole social sphere into the air without a parachute. What will people think when you tell them that you have cancer? Will they run away, pepper you with annoying questions, or become cloyingly helpful?

If you are diagnosed with cancer, you become part of a minority that no one would choose to join. Being a minority carries risks and fears that the majority—innocently or not—imposes and reinforces. You may get lots of sympathy and care and even love after you are diagnosed, but in reality the only folks that truly understand what you are going through are other cancer survivors. Thus, cancer can propel even the strongest and most socially connected person into isolation and fear.

Now, imagine that you were part of a minority even before you were diagnosed. You are now challenged with navigating the rest of your life as doubly disenfranchised. Indeed that is the way of the world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people diagnosed with cancer.

Way back in 1997, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As a social worker, I didn’t have the skills to cure his cancer, but I did know that starting a support group might help him. Very quickly, that support group in New York City seemed to attract many gay men. These men talked about their ordeal. As in, the difficulty in being open with their doctors about being gay; the difficulty in being presumed to be straight at every turn of their health care; the difficulty of having a social life as a cancer patient after years of learning how to have a life as a gay man. The men spoke of their struggles to find peer support, so I started a small nonprofit called Malecare, the world’s first gay men’s cancer support group, which has since grown into one of America’s leading cancer support and advocacy organizations.

As Malecare support groups developed across the United States, I noticed that support groups through nonprofits and hospitals were segmented by either cancer type or by gender. From listening to gay and bisexual men and transgender men and women in our Malecare cancer survivor groups, I knew that our community was missing an important piece of advocacy and support. So, in 2005, Malecare founded the worlds’ first cancer support nonprofit focused on all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We called it the LGBT Cancer Project, with our support groups called Out with Cancer. The LGBT Cancer Project and Out with Cancer have now grown into an international organization called the LGBT Cancer Community, where all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people diagnosed with cancer can find support.

All LGBT cancer survivors share the experience of coming out. Either they were disclosed, or “outed,” by someone else or they went through a process of self-understanding and then a brave declaration—neither of which is a part of life for heterosexuals. Being “out” with your cancer diagnosis is a similar process.

Gay cancer survivors exist in a state of “compound minority.” Being a cancer survivor and a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person is best considered together rather than separately. Think in terms of “gay cancer survivor” rather than “gay man who is also a cancer survivor.” And it is this sense of unified identity—that we are an LGBT cancer survivor community—that makes the LGBT cancer support groups so special and helpful. LGBT cancer survivors share treatment knowledge and helpful hints from their own unique perspective, and it’s absolutely life affirming and life extending when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women connect with the goal of increasing love, quality of life and community.

You can directly connect with LGBT cancer survivor support groups at www.outwithcancer.org. And, you are invited to visit the LGBT Cancer Community at www.lgbtcancer.org for more information.

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