Prevention is key at Lesbian Health Initiative’s Rainbow Health Fairs.
by Nancy Ford • Photo by Blase DiStefano
Despite years of nagging from the American Cancer Society and various other health institutes about the importance of early detection in the treatment of cancer and other illnesses, the fact of the matter is, most people are more attentive to the maintenance of their automobiles than they are to their own health.
Whether restricted by lack of insurance or lack of knowledge about services available, people, especially women, often ignore their own health until it’s too late.
Enter Lesbian Health Initiative-Houston.
With its mission to promote women’s health in the Bayou City, LHI provides two essential tools of early detection—mammograms and Pap smears—to lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered women twice each year, via the group’s Rainbow Health Fairs.
As a registered nurse, LHI board member Cathy McMillan recognizes the importance of preventative maintenance in healthcare. “It’s not just about checking people at the time [they’re sick], it’s about prevention,” she says. “We also do things like blood sugar and glucose testing, and blood pressure, cholesterol readings.”
Best of all, the health fairs provide these services to women free of charge.
“Some women just don’t have the resources,” McMillan says. “Some insurance will pay for some things, but not for others. “Mammograms and the Pap smears are major expenses, and people who don’t have insurance sometimes just can’t afford them. But someone in that position still needs to have those done.”
McMillan says she would like to see the Rainbow Health Fairs expand beyond “basically medical stuff” to offer women services like advice on living wills and power of attorney, and from social workers. “There are a lot of people with no resources who don’t really know what’s available to them in the community, who get connected,” she says.
McMillan would also like to add to the fairs’ rosters a dentist “that would check for oral cancer.” Personal trainers are also on her wish list. “They could teach people how they can keep themselves fit and healthy within their own home if they can’t afford to go to a gym. And dieticians could explain how to prepare low-cost nutritional meals, and how to maintain your health.”
McMillan recognizes that these expanded services require an expanded team of volunteers and board members. Eight women currently sit on LHI’s board; McMillan would like to see that number doubled.
“You know, a lot of the other organizations demand a great deal of time, whereas with LHI, people can volunteer however they want,” she says. “They don’t have to commit for a lot of time. If people just want to help with the health fair, they can just do that. If people want to help with the gala, they can do that. People can help with the newsletter. They don’t have to give up a lot of time.”
LHI’s Poster Child
As many as 30 women make appointments for mammograms provided at LHI’s health fairs by MD Anderson’s mobile radiography/mammogram unit. Since their inception in 1992, the fairs have provided more than 750 mammograms to women.
One woman who had been taking advantage of the mammograms and other services regularly received a clean bill of breast health—until one year when her mammogram detected a very small nodule that turned out to be cancer.
“The woman got treatment,” McMillan says, the relief in her voice impossible to ignore. “If it had not been for detection, we might not have that woman with us today.”
That woman is Kiki Neumann.
“It’s true,” Neumann says. “It’s because of LHI that I’m still here, being my smart-ass, witty self!”
Neumann was a long-time regular at the semi-annual health fairs, in part as a vendor, selling pieces of folk art she constructs for her business, Mother’s Old Fencepost. “I would ‘sell and schmoosh,’” she quipped, describing the compressive nature of a mammogram. “I’d run out and get a mammogram, and then run back in and sell some arts and crafts.”
As a small-business owner, Neumann recognized the economic advantage provided by the health fairs.
“The word ‘f-r-e-e’ caught my eye,” she spells out, laughing. “Also, because it was gay-identified, it felt like a safe environment to go and have a yearly mammogram.”
It was following Neumann’s 2002 “schmoosh” that a lump was detected in her right breast.
“It was diagnosed due to the diligence of the reading of the mammogram, because [the lump] was very far back in the chest wall,” Neumann recalls. “It could not be detected by a self-exam. It was so hard to find that they had to do a biopsy to determine it was indeed cancer.”
By August she was in the hospital, having surgery. She had lost her paternal grandmother to breast cancer, so as a preventative measure, Neumann made the difficult decision of having both breasts removed.
It was not a decision she came to without heavy consideration. “I had a meeting with six [cancer] survivors that I knew, some of whom were also active in LHI and in being out in our community. I asked them all how they treated their cancer, and based on learning from our community, I then made my choice of what I would do.”
Following a couple years of hormonal treatment, Neumann is well and enjoying a clean bill of health. She continues to attend the health fairs, being one of the group’s most vocal advocates.
“It’s just wonderful to go with all of your friends to one of the fairs, enjoy seeing each other, and go in for your ‘little unveiling,’” Neumann says. “I also enjoy the fact that this is women doing this for other women instead of having to sit in a waiting room with people you don’t know.”
McMillan agrees about the comfortable, welcoming environment at the fairs. “Women from our community can feel more comfortable coming to an all-woman organization,” she says. “They don’t have to worry about explaining their lifestyle, which is another issue.”
Women of all ages come to health fairs to take advantage of the services, but at 56, Neumann especially appreciates the services LHI provides to older lesbians.
“Let’s face it, we do have an aging population,” she says. “We partied our way through the ’80s and ’90s, and we did a wonderful job of it, but we are not necessarily needing to party anymore.
“So now it’s about a different way of supporting each other. This is about a physical and a mental and an emotional support. And LHI is offering that.”