Whitney Qualls (she/her) is a PhD candidate researching the psychosocial experiences of queer cancer patients.

Pride Month Profile: Whitney Qualls

June 16, 2022

By: Geron Malbas

Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) PhD candidate Whitney Qualls (she/her) is researching how to help health care providers deliver more competent care for sexual minorities.  

Originally from Milwaukee, Qualls had researched 2S/LGBTQ health issues during her Master of Public Health degree studying the psychology of gay men self-swabbing for HPV. During this time, she was interested in participants who were either young or young adults when the AIDS crisis occurred, looking into their current mindset on the spread of HPV. In her undergraduate degree in Psychology, she worked on a study researching lesbians with breast cancer, reading public forums on lesbian breast cancer experiences regarding the choice to not have reconstructive surgery, or how lesbians experience the cancer continuum differently. In the preliminary stages of her PhD program, she wanted to continue working in queer health.

“When I was coming into the FHS PhD program and thinking about my research topic, I knew I wanted to work in queer health,” she said. “I had the knowledge and experience working with lesbians with breast cancer understanding self-image, their relationships with doctors; the experience researching MSM and gay men where they gave out history, and how sexual history impacts current psychological medical understandings. After initially looking into researching cancer, and even telehealth with COVID-19 in mind, I boiled it down to how do we deliver competent care, and what does it look like?”

Her thesis will look at the psychosocial experiences of queer cancer patients in the cancer system with their care team, which include providers most often in cancer care, such as nurses, radiologists, and more.

“I’m focusing on the disclosure process that happens with patients who are sexual minorities; when they decide to come out, who they decide to come out to, if an opportunity is given by the health care provider, or if those opportunities need be created at all,” she explains. “In order to deliver competent care to someone, you have to know whether someone is a sexual minority, and that comes down to the disclosure process. I believe the onus on providing competent care is on care providers, but unfortunately, they have to have a disclosure process, and that falls onto the patient unfairly.”

Qualls explains that this work is important as certain cancers inordinately impact queer people. Nulliparity – a condition or state in which a woman has never given birth to a child, or has never carried a pregnancy- often has a higher risk for breast cancer. She points out that this means that it is often that lesbian women - or women who are partnered with women - do not bear children, leaving them at risk. This also extends to gay men or men who have sex with men (MSM), who need to be considerate of the spread and health effects of HPV.

“In terms of the epidemiological context on why we need to focus on queer cancer outcomes, there is also social stress, sexual minority stress, discrimination stress, etc., that impact your cancer outcomes,” Qualls explains. “HPV is a big thing for anal cancer – and up until very recently, men weren’t regularly vaccinated for it, or recommended to be, because it was seen as a responsibility for women or those with a cervix. However, you can get oral or anal cancer from HPV, and gay men don’t realize this, so incidents of anal cancer are inordinately higher in gay relationships or MSM.”

Despite the dynamic and ever-changing landscape of cancer research, Qualls is excited to continue fighting these big issues and advocate for queer health.

“While things are changing for the better incrementally, it’s not nearly as fast as it should be happening, and I’m excited to continue putting in the work contributing to this big body of knowledge to ensure policies and new practices are implemented soon.”

If you’re looking to learn more about Whitney Qualls and her work, you can take a look at some of her research:

  1. Article: Are mainstream support services meeting the needs of sexual minority women with breast cancer? An exploration of the perspectives and experiences of users of an online support forum
  2. Article: Rejection of Breast Reconstruction Among Lesbian Breast Cancer Patients