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Roger is a 75 year-old gay man from Margate, where he lives with his husband Nigel. He is a co-author of books about LGBTs and dementia, and regularly blogs at eknewguy.com. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in April.
So, after a bit of welcome flattery, I agreed to write a guest blog, and I was especially interested to find out that the Community News blog hadn't really had any contributions from LGBTs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) - that comment is a good place to start.
It is perfectly possible that LGBTs have written about their experiences of having cancer but for many, and more likely for older people, we don't easily surrender such information. We bring too much past baggage about revealing our sexuality and experiences of rejection into the present for some of us to feel we can openly and confidently say "I'm gay". Consequently, the burden of dealing with our cancer diagnosis might also be accompanied by a personal question which asks, 'just how much am I going to tell this doctor/this nurse/this consultant/this...whoever, about my sexuality?'
With my own diagnosis, surgery and current treatment for breast cancer I was able to introduce the issue of my sexuality without fear; how else could I be treated holistically? But not everyone within our community has the same confidence and might never have the same confidence.
As I lay in the hospital ward after surgery; or sit in the waiting room before seeing the oncologist; or wait for my daily dose of radiotherapy, I feel happy that I have a partner who can sit with me, and see me through with it. However, the majority of us LGBTs, and especially the majority of us older ones, are not likely to have the benefit of such a partner, and some of us have never had one. For many reasons, unlike the wider heterosexual population, we are not likely to be in partnerships. For some of us we have what we can call 'our family of choice', who will be there for us when we need them, but don't bank on it being so for all of us, and without that support, coping alone with the 'news' about one's cancer must be incredibly difficult.
For most of us LGBTs the diagnosis of a serious illness, or the need for other kinds of service provision, brings with it a sort of crisis. Over the years we have carefully created secure walls around ourselves in protection against others who might possibly not be so supportive were they to know about our sexuality. Now, we need to let others come into our world and we have to decide just how much we want them to know about us. Last week 'on the slab' before my daily radiotherapy, I happily told the nurse that I was looking forward to our town's gay pride, the following day, but I bet others wouldn't feel so confident. Happily, the response I got was warm, positive, engaged, and I felt good.
Engagement and empathy is what it is all about. Of course I want to be treated the same as everyone else - if not, then the law has been broken; but I also want to be treated as a gay man with the whole load of associated facts, understandings, words and humour which my sexuality brings with it. And if you don't know what they might be then don't be afraid to ask.
Sometimes that need for engagement is so simple but the more essential for all that. For example, when I asked that my partner would be told about my being moved to a new ward, I didn't want to hear, "I will phone HER". As an older gay man I am bemused by well-meaning people who say to me, "Stay positive", and who are confused when I naughtily reply, "Well, actually I'm not".
As for the fact that I find myself with male breast cancer, a whole new challenging world has been opened up to me. Finding other men with the same condition is becoming difficult and, in this country, getting them to talk is an even bigger problem. Finding other gay men in the same situation exacerbates the issue even further. I seem to be the only gay man with breast cancer in the UK village! And this opens up another important issue for us LGBT people.
Our story is one of repression, discrimination and even hatred. It is not surprising therefore that we find strength through each other. There are times when we like/need to be with those of our own community - please understand that. So I am glad there is a Macmillan LGBT group and I will draw strength from and give to it what support I can. I hope that the organisation will offer the resources our community needs to function. Training and empathy are a bedrock but, with the isolation which we might experience as we go through our cancer journey, we need staff dedicated to supporting us socially, with informed counselling, and especially with advocacy skills too.
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Thanks for sharing Roger. There's simply no way you can be the only gay man in Britain with breast cancer. Let's hope your sharing leads others to feel they can too. Kindest Regards
Thanks for a really insightful blog post Roger. You wrote quite a few things that struck a chord with me, like the past baggage about revealing our sexuality and the secure walls we have created around ourselves for protection. I'd chucked my closet away years before getting cancer but felt I needed to hide back inside it again when I was referred to the hospital by my GP. In my experience the healthcare system can be a very unwelcoming place if you're LGBT, although we're trying to change that. Blog posts like yours help lots!! Thanks again.
Roger, you put things so well and so clearly that no one can fail to understand the difficulties that the LBGT community may face when diagnosed with cancer (as well as in normal life).
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