Gay men are fearing doctors because of their sexuality. We need to talk about prostate cancer | Elizabeth Snell

Led by Dr Elizabeth Snell, team of doctors at Northwestern Medicine believes that ‘public health approach’ and ‘antigay stigma’ are at root of many reasons why recent men’s health trends and information on this issue has been lacking

Chicago is not a city that is known for its colorful and lively LGBTQ+ activist groups – it’s a city of doctors and researchers.

“Chicago is a city that is [a] great ally to LGBT+ issues and legislation” – especially when it comes to advancing the movement on sex and gender minorities.

That is why today marks the first Chicago TEDx talk – Sexual Health and Justice – which is focused on sex and gender health and justice issues facing black and Latino men with prostate cancer.

The headliner in this conversation was Dr Elizabeth Snell, the vice president for Population Health at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Snell teaches medical students here at Northwestern University (the medical school that has taught the likes of Dr Eve Espey, Deloitte professor of commercialization at the Kellogg School of Management). Snell has been working on this issue for three years.

“This is a public health-oriented approach. A lot of the time we have a one-size-fits-all approach – black, brown, homosexual and so on. This is a comprehensive approach” – taking the view that medical students would only hear and know about women’s health issues. Snell felt this was problematic and kept her work alive at Northwestern. After a year, Evanston, Illinois-based peer support center, the “Endings Project” (with the enviable title of: “Men With Prostate Cancer and The End of Shame”), invited Snell to join their team. Over the past three years Snell has been working on helping people “stay within their own existence and not get lost in the orthodox path”.

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And many men are lost in the path. Anti-gay stigma and homophobia in the communities has led many to deny their own sexuality, as stated in Snell’s talks. In the face of this mistreatment and misunderstanding of prostate cancer, many men remain very angry at a doctor, afraid that he or she is telling them something bad. Even though doctors routinely ask questions of men, who are running away from their doctors because of their fear that they are not in the correct bubble.

And for all of these men with prostate cancer, there is a very great deal of variability in their outcomes. Snell in her talk talked about how it is now common for gay men to receive benefits that seem to equate with straight people, when in reality, they only affect men with prostate cancer. For that reason, Snell states, gay men especially have little to no support to deal with the health problems associated with their disease, thus impacting other aspects of their lives. Her end goal is to completely “normalize” the conversations around prostate cancer. In this hope, she guides the conversations through questions about beliefs, values, gender norms, and sexual orientation.

Snell offers new tools that include “kitchen table” support groups that allow men to have their own and individualized conversations around their health issue, something which was not really happening before. Snell has been working on developing an “Atlanta version” of this approach to prostate cancer for years, but has to keep waiting to see if it can be accepted by the public health system in Atlanta and replicated across the city.

Change is hard to come by, and over the years Snell has learned that her approach is much more about individuals engaging with each other than the system. In this age of social media (a place that has a huge role to play in how healthy our country is) it is important to educate the public about sex and gender health. Snell believes that conversations about diversity and race in sexual health are likely to flourish and spread through social media.

Snell concluded her talk by quoting Dr Barack Obama, saying: “Our failure to speak to our children with a truth that includes all of them, is one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

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