No one ever wants to think about getting cancer. You may even be tempted to skip over this Spotlight Interview in order to avoid some of the inevitable discomfort cancer discussions bring up. But as I learned from Myrna Duarte of American Cancer Society, awareness of this disease, and its unique issues within the GLBT community, is half the battle. Please take a moment to read this valuable information that could save your life as well as the lives of your family, loved ones, colleagues, and Chamber members.
Damon L. Jacobs: Tell me about your work with American Cancer Society.
Myrna Duarte: My title is Director of Diversity Initiatives. I basically look at underserved diverse communities and see how we can do our work better. We do a great job already, but I find if there is a way to further our message to people that need our help. Just giving information is so important in helping people learn what they should be doing, how they should be eating, what screenings they need. If they don’t have a primary care physician in place, then we help them get into community centers, make sure they have our brochures, and that the 800 number for free cancer screenings is readily available.
I started here four years ago. I found that although the American Cancer Society was here to serve everyone, and always has been, we were not engaging the LGBT community sufficiently in the fight against cancer, and in bringing our programs and services that were readily available to the community. I felt as a lifetime ally to the community that I wanted to do good by my friends and family. We needed to find ways to engage the community and NGLCCNY was one of the first big steps. With people living longer with HIV and AIDS, many are now facing cancer. It is a disease that comes from just getting older.
Damon L. Jacobs: What are the ways the American Cancer Society has reached out to the LGBT Community?
Myrna Duarte: One of the first ways was our event “Relay For Life.” It was a mission driven event, a simple fundraiser where people can participate with five dollars, or even less. It was about letting the community know we are here, to come out and learn about cancer. It took place at World Financial Center, and was a really fun Saturday afternoon with incredible performances, wonderful talent, and find out how we, American Cancer Society, needed to change or evolve.
Damon L. Jacobs: What issues are specific to lesbian or bisexual women?
Myrna Duarte: Many health insurance policies do not cover unmarried partners. This makes it harder for lesbian and bisexual woman to access quality of health care. Cancer risks are greater for lesbian women who avoid preventive health care because they fear discrimination and insensitivity by health care providers. I think it is also important how you send the message. Most breast cancer materials are pink and very girlie looking. I don’t think all lesbians see themselves that way. You need to have more general messaging that will reach every one.
Damon L. Jacobs: And the transgender community?
Myrna Duarte: In New York City, the Department of Health reported in 1999 that 21% transgender respondents reported having no health insurance of any kind. Even those with health insurance can face difficulties in obtaining appropriate cancer screenings. A transgender woman, listed on her insurance as a female, but still having an intact prostate gland, would not be covered for prostate cancer screening. The same is true for a transgender man with an intact cervix.
I had the honor of doing a workshop on cancer through the Latino AIDS Commission. People were fascinated by listening to what their cancer screenings should be. I had a group of transgender participants that felt they did not need a prostate exam. I explained to them that you do need that at the right age, and if you have any history of cancer in your family you need to honor the organs that are in your body. It doesn’t mean you are not the most beautiful woman in the room! But they do face a lot of barriers with discrimination, and being underinsured. We can help in that way.
Damon L. Jacobs: How can you help transgender individuals overcome these barriers?
Myrna Duarte: We help them find cancer screening and low-cost or no-cost services through the cancer services program through New York State. We can assist with all their needs. We can let them know where to be screened, when to start if you have a family history of breast cancer or colon cancer. There are organizations to which we can refer. We don’t want to take anything away from anyone who is doing a better job than us. We are very open when it comes to that.
Damon L. Jacobs: Many gay men are terrified to learn about anal cancer. If someone reading this doesn’t have a doctor, or have a good relationship with his doctor, what is one step he can take?
Myrna Duarte: First thing to know, cigarette smoking among gay men is nearly double that of the general population. Smoking is responsible for 80% of all lung cancers, but it also increases the risk of many other cancers, including colon cancer, esophageal cancer and anal cancer. So they need to have a very open conversation with their doctor. They need the screening. If your doctor is not comfortable with you, then you need to go to a different doctor.
Anyone can call our cancer services program and they can be referred to a place where they can be screened. They can call our 1-800-227-2345 number and get referrals. They can go to The Lesbian Cancer Initiative, which men can call too, and be given a roster of safe places they can go. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Alliance is also a resource. We do not refer to physicians but do refer to organizations that help with these referrals.
Damon L. Jacobs: How else does the American Cancer Society seek to help the LGBT community?
Myrna Duarte: We are in the middle of our Cancer Prevention Study (CPS3) which is the first cancer study that will be asking the GLB community to self-identify. The data we will collect from this will be invaluable. There has been no cancer study of this size ever that has asked the GLB community to self-identify. We are looking for 300,000 participants across the country, with a minimum of 25% diversity participation. I know we will surpass that.
Damon L. Jacobs: So people reading this interview can get involved with this historical study?
Myrna Duarte: Yes, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Damon L. Jacobs: Count me in; I would love to be part of this.
Myrna Duarte: Good. We are hoping that CP3 will bring us a wealth of new knowledge that will hopefully bring us closer to curing this, which we think will happen in our lifetimes.
Damon L. Jacobs: Really?
Myrna Duarte: If not our lifetimes then soon after. That is my hope; I work really hard, and want this to happen while I’m still here.
Damon L. Jacobs: How did you get involved in this work?
Myrna Duarte: I used to produce events for the corporate and cable television industry. I did that for many years. I got to travel all across the county planning these amazing events, and that was really fun. But one day I woke up and wanted the volume of hours to go to something else. Not just to make money, I wanted my day to have a different value. I needed to work with people and help people. I think what helped me in my last job was that I really cared about the participants in these events. I started to think, “Why can’t I do this to help people in a different way?” Cancer, having been such a big issue in my family, made it so the American Cancer Society was one of the first places I turned. I started working here almost four years ago.
Damon L. Jacobs: What have been some of the challenges you have faced these past four years?
Myrna Duarte: The volume of it. There is a lot to do. You don’t want to stop, you want to reach everyone you can in whatever language is necessary and figure out how to do that, and to do it cost-effectively. If it was up to me I would be at every health fair with a table talking to every person until I lost my voice, I have no problem doing that. But it’s making the decisions of what is going to be most effective in this community.
I started working at Pridefest a couple of years ago. Everyone thinks it’s a big crazy party and asked why I was doing that. But Pridefest is incredible. I come back with no voice, not a single piece of paper, and a list of names of people who want more information about cancer, about screenings, about programs and services from us and our partners. You have no idea how much people want to talk about cancer. At a big party, with margaritas in their hands, they want to talk to me about cancer? That says something to me. You’re out there, you’re partying, you’re half-naked covered with glitter, and you’re coming up to me wanting to talk about a colonoscopy. That to me is a strong message that we are needed, and that the community wants more information, they want to be healthy.
Damon L. Jacobs: What are the greatest rewards of this work?
Myrna Duarte: People. I get to meet people on the best day of their lives. That means they are doing something to help someone else. I meet people who can give of themselves, of their time, of their money, of their services, to help others. I find that to be the biggest gift. Even when they are sick. I often work with people who may be sick and speaking at an event, trying to motivate people to be healthier, to engage children in the fight against cancer. I meet amazing people.
Damon L. Jacobs: When I talk to people in the LGBT community about the HIV Vaccine research I am involved with, I often get reactions of discomfort, fear, or even hostility. Do you get the same when you mention the “C Word”?
Myrna Duarte: Very much so. Cancer is a party killer. If they’re not up for it, it will really shut them down. There is still a lot of shame in cancer. There are a lot of odd stigmas. My grandmother had cancer, and it just wasn’t spoken about. She was very ashamed, it was a big taboo. I only knew after she passed away that she had uterine cancer. In a Latino family that is a big issue, and the same in many other communities. People don’t want to talk about it, it is shameful. But there is nothing shameful about cancer. You didn’t do anything bad! It just happens. It’s genetic, it’s environmental, and it has many different causes. Nothing is going to happen by you talking about it.
Damon L. Jacobs: What can people do to support this work?
Myrna Duarte: We have an LGBT and Friends Committee, and we would love to have more members of The Chamber join. That committee is focused on our event called “Encore For Hope,” from last February. We are also looking for volunteers, and open to have members of The Chamber on board for any participation.
Damon L. Jacobs: Anything else you want the NGLCCNY members to know about you?
Myrna Duarte: I want people to know we are here for them, that American Cancer Society is here to help everyone. I have met incredible people through The Chamber that have furthered our work, and who have supported us in many different ways. We are even presenting The Chamber with a plaque at the next M3 thanking them for their participation in Colorectal Awareness Month this past March.
** To learn more about any of the above studies or resources, please contact Myrna Duarte at email@example.com
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist who helps couples and individuals learn to improve communication, create and rebuild trust, cope with grief and loss, health issues, stress management, depression, addiction, ageism, bullying trauma, and caretaking fatigue. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To schedule a counseling visit or speaking engagement, call 347-227-7707, or email at Shouldless@gmail.com. An initial complimentary consultation is offered to NGLCCNY members, or people who are referred by NGLCCNY members.