June is Men’s Health Month: a time to heighten awareness and encourage early detection of prostate cancer and other diseases that predominantly affect men. June also marks Pride Month, when we commemorate the Stonewall Riots and celebrate the visibility, bravery, and activism of the LGBTQ community. In honor of both, ZERO recognizes the unique experiences of gay men, bisexual men, transgender women, and non-binary individuals when faced with a prostate cancer diagnosis, and we’re here to provide a support network and various life-saving resources.
“Being gay is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define who I am, just as prostate cancer doesn’t define who I am,” said ZERO Mentor Chris Hartley. “However — and there’s a big however — as a gay man, specifically, my thoughts about prostate cancer and manhood are likely very different than my straight prostate cancer brothers.”
Sexuality and sexual orientation has no bearing on the risk of developing prostate cancer. Anyone with a prostate is at risk of having prostate cancer in their lifetimes, and neither oral nor anal sex have been proven to increase that risk. However, the side effects of prostate cancer — namely the perceived loss of masculinity — have much different implications for gay and bisexual men than they do for straight men.
“As a gay man, I had to face questions about my own manhood in the context of my sexuality at a very early age,” said Hartley. “So, by the time I received my prostate cancer diagnosis at the age of 43, I’d already come to terms with the fact that my sexuality, my manhood, were independent of each other.” Check out Hartley’s blog post from last year, in which he opened up about the effects of his prostate cancer treatment on his intimacy and sexuality.
In addition to experiencing it, opening up about the side effects on one’s sex life can be particularly difficult for LGBTQ individuals within the prostate cancer community.
“Just because my sexuality and race is different doesn’t mean I don’t have needs,” said ZERO Champion Eugene Cox, Jr. “It just means that my needs are different than a lot of other men. Even though you’re going through the same disease, as a gay man, you’re going through it differently because you already have all these other stereotypes going against you.”
Mr. Cox is one of the founders of EquipMENt, a prostate cancer support group specifically for gay men in the DC area. He pointed out the importance of confiding in a group of people with shared experiences, perspectives, and attitudes towards sexuality and identity. In addition to intimacy, Mr. Cox named many unique struggles that LGBTQ individuals with prostate cancer are more likely to face, including marital status, strained family relationships, and certain outcomes of treatment such as continence and erectile dysfunction.
“I wanted to be around people who understand what it’s like to go through what I’ve been through. If you’re in a group of men who are not accustomed to talking openly about all types of sexual encounters, then it’s gonna be difficult. You crawl back into a shell, and that’s not good for you.”
Prostate cancer, and the language we use to speak about it, can also take a particularly emotional toll on the trans community. Transgender women and non-binary folks are at risk of developing prostate cancer regardless whether or not they have taken hormones or undergone gender-confirming surgery. It can be incredibly difficult to have a male-associated cancer as someone who does not identify as male, especially since most resources and support groups are targeted towards men.
It is imperative that the prostate cancer community supports and allows space for trans individuals to talk openly about their experiences. If you are seeking personal resources, Malecare can connect you with a social worker, and Prostate Cancer UK is trialing an online support group specifically for trans women.
“It’s important to look at ourselves as whole people,” said another member of EquipMENt who wishes to remain anonymous. “That was the difference that allowed me to recognize this diagnosis as a gift — that it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence for me, but just a change of life.”
ZERO has numerous resources available for LGBTQ individuals, and we are committed to providing a safe space where anyone can find solace during their prostate cancer journey. We hope everyone takes this month to celebrate Pride and all that it stands for within the prostate cancer community.
Chris Hartley, who is one of our champions at ZERO, sat down with ZERO CEO Jamie Bearse last year for an open and candid discussion about life with prostate cancer as a gay man. His podcast and its transcript can be found here.
EquipMENt meets every fourth Thursday via ZOOM, 7 – 8:30 pm (EDT), through the Smith Center in Washington, DC. Participants must register with Carla Stillwagon at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kiersten Gallagher at email@example.com