Health & Wellness

Paula Chambers’ Health Advocacy

Cheeky Charity, a queer-led organization, raises awareness of colorectal cancer at Pride events.

Paula Chambers (Image courtesy)

Paula Chambers firmly believes that an individual’s pride is directly linked to their health—especially their gut and butt health. Colorectal cancer is the second most fatal cancer in the United States. It’s also the cancer most people don’t feel comfortable talking about.

“There’s no point in being ashamed in talking about colorectal cancer. And yet, so many people are ashamed to talk about it, especially men, and even more so with men of color. As I have said many times, we all have a gut and we all have a butt,” she says. “Our community talks about needing to take pride in who we are. We also need to talk about taking pride in our health so we can be who we are fully.”

It’s Paula’s hope that during this Pride season the LGBTQ community starts prioritizing or re-prioritizing their health by taking action to put themselves first. She urges us to make regular appointments with primary-care physicians, talk about cancer screenings and STD screenings, and learn as much as possible about our genetics and how they play a pivotal role in diseases and conditions that many are not aware of.

As a 10-year, stage 3 colorectal cancer survivor, Paula has taken every lesson she has learned and channeled that energy into her role as a Hope Coordinator for Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC), a nationwide patient advocacy group. Paula proudly works as a boots-on-the ground champion, organizing outreach projects and participating in speaking engagements across the country. Paula emphasizes that “it’s work that must be done.”

When she reflects upon her own diagnosis, she can’t help but take a moment’s pause. In detailing her experience, she wants to make sure that people understand that not all situations are the same. Her story isn’t meant to spark fear, but rather to spark a flame of self-care and resiliency. She’s determined that no one should experience the treatment she received.

“For many years I was ignored and misdiagnosed. I believe explicit and implicit bias almost killed me,” she says. “As my symptoms worsened, I tried to be seen many, many times. No type of screenings were offered to me. I was even told that I was drug-seeking, paranoid, and so much more.”

Paula didn’t fight back. This poor treatment reminded her of the principles she was taught growing up. She was an Army kid instilled with a deep-seated sense of respect for those in uniform and in positions of expertise. “I was told that doctors don’t always listen to Black patients, so it’s important to dress up, be respectful, and enunciate in order to be seen as a human. These types of things are hard to unlearn, but we have to,” she says.

“I had one doctor tell me, ‘Didn’t you say you are gay?’ I said Yes. He then said, ‘Well, you are going to hell anyway so it doesn’t really matter what’s wrong with you, but I can give you an antibiotic.’”
—Paula Chambers

However, Paula found that even showing the utmost respect didn’t matter to some physicians. “I had one doctor tell me, ‘Didn’t you say you are gay?’ I said Yes. He then said, ‘Well, you are going to hell anyway so it doesn’t really matter what’s wrong with you, but I can give you an antibiotic.’ After a while I just felt gaslit. I just stopped talking. No one believed me, so I held the pain in.”

And not just physical pain. Paula was suppressing an excessive amount of emotional pain as well. Talking back and questioning a doctor wasn’t something Paula ever considered or imagined herself doing, even if it meant leaving an emergency room or urgent care without receiving complete care. Until her wife, Laura, became her biggest advocate.

“During an emergency-room visit, the doctor walked in and took a look at me, then looked at my wife and looked back at me and said, ‘I don’t know what you all are doing here, but just so you know, I don’t give drugs out in the ER.’ He didn’t even say his name. He didn’t even ask why I was there. My wife took him outside of the room and yelled at him. I was in so much pain, but that encounter really changed a lot for me.”

Things got worse before they would get better for Paula. She was in pain beyond belief. Her body fighting to function and her spirit fighting to survive, Paula was starting to lose a battle she didn’t even know she was fighting. It was 58 days after the two were married in New York that they rushed to a Harris County emergency room. It was here that Paula was finally diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Her case was reviewed by an area-wide cancer tumor board. It was evident that surgery was needed. A baseball-sized tumor was removed along with 36 lymph nodes. Since then, Paula’s cancer has been in remission.

A lot has changed since that life-changing day in the emergency room. Paula learned a lot about herself and the obstacles faced by countless others. Her first-hand experience with prejudice and discrimination while seeking medical care still makes her heart skip a beat.

Paula became a larger-than-life Fight CRC advocate in 2019. Committed to opening doors and breaking down barriers, Paula advocates on behalf of LGBTQ people to physicians and encourages the queer community to be their own healthcare advocates.

“The stigma around talking about our butts is huge—what it means to our sense of masculinity, femininity, why some think it’s a sin, and why it’s wrong to just talk about it. These are the obstacles that continuous talk and outreach will break down,” she says. “And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk and talk about it. We need to talk about our parts. People don’t like to talk about their parts, but they matter and can need vital care.”

During this year’s Houston Pride 365 and Houston’s New Faces of Pride festivities, Paula can be found working in conjunction with a new queer-led organization, Cheeky Charity, to bring colorectal cancer awareness to the LGBTQ community, regardless of age and gender. Cheeky Charity is part of the American Cancer Society’s National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable. Through grant funding, Cheeky Charity will be attending various Pride events across the country, working with local ambassadors to help increase the conversation around “butt stuff,” resources for screenings, as well as education on all things related to colorectal cancer.

“The landscape of advocacy can seem scary if you let it be,” Paula says, “but we are all advocates. We can encourage each other. I have seen community in action and what it looks like when we support one another and fight for what’s right. We are fighting for our health. We are fighting for our right to have equal health care. I look back at grassroots advocacy groups in the queer community that taught us how to fight—how to to stand up for one another. They encouraged us to vote, they believed in us. We cannot stop now. The LGBTQ+ community cannot go back. We have come too far. I have hope. I hope that every Pride festival, every speaking engagement will change lives and perspectives.”

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