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Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that readers do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet they still wish to understand how the results will influence their clinical practice or research. To address this need, we offer podcasts that will enhance the readership experience by presenting the key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format. Our podcasts are designed to place selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that is easy to listen to in the office or while on the road.

Life is busy, and it’s hard to get it all done during business hours! Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that you do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet you wish to understand how the results will influence your clinical practice or research. JCO After Hours is a podcast intended to enhance the readership experience by presenting key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format, placing selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that you can listen to in the office or on the road.

Jan 25, 2024

Dr. Shannon Westin and her guest, Dr. Ash Alpert and Spencer Adams, discuss the paper "Debunking Sex and Disentangling Gender From Oncology" recently published in the JCO.


The guests on this podcast episode have no disclosures to declare.

Shannon Westin: Hello and welcome to JCO After Hours, the podcast where we get in depth on manuscripts published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. I'm your host, Shannon Westin, Social Media Editor and GYN oncologist by trade. I'm so excited to be discussing a very important manuscript. This is "Debunking Sex and Disentangling Gender from Oncology," which was published in the JCO Online on May 26, 2023. So I'm joined by two of the authors here today on the podcast. First is Dr. Ash Alpert. They are an instructor of medicine and hematology at Yale Cancer Center. Welcome.

Dr. Ash Alpert: Thank you.

Shannon Westin: And we also have Spencer Adams. They have a bachelor's in public health, are a certified health education specialist, and are currently pursuing a master's in public health at Western Michigan University. Welcome, Spencer.

Spencer Adams: Thank you for having me.

Shannon Westin: So let's get into it. I'm so excited. First off, I just want to say thank you because I learned a ton from this paper, and I'm hoping to be able to implement some of these changes that we're going to discuss over the next few minutes at my own institution. So I wanted to just make sure we kind of level set and everyone's on the same page. So let's start off by discussing ontological oppression. Can you explain to the listeners what this means and how it relates to sex and gender and oncology?

Dr. Ash Alpert: Sure. So, ontological oppression is actually a concept from one of my colleagues at Yale, Robin Demroff, who's a philosopher. Ontology is a way of thinking about what exists and how we categorize what exists. And so ontological oppression is discrimination or stigma that happens because of the ways people imagine us fitting or not fitting into social categories. For example, if we think that people are women or men based on their sex assigned at birth, then it makes sense that we would think of transgender people and nonbinary people as abnormal, weird, or pathologic. In oncology, if we think of ovarian cancer as something that happens to women and a man with ovarian cancer comes into our clinic, we may be confused or uncomfortable. We may respond to those feelings by denying his identity, for example, thinking he's actually a woman or using the wrong pronouns or name for him or even potentially denying him care. And we have some data to suggest that clinicians respond to lack of knowledge about transgender people by treating them as abnormal, weird, or bad in some way. 

Spencer Adams: Yeah. And to add to that, when we consider how we classify people, first, there's a problem within that. There's an ethical problem within that, but it's an idea or a construct that society has created and wants people to fit into these nice little boxes just because it's easier to digest, or you make the person more palatable if they're able to do these things. And life is not like that. We have differences, and we have things that make people fit outside the box. And I believe that when we keep reminding people that a box exists or a social construct exists, you're stifling who they are, their personality, their guiding light. You're stifling a lot of things about that person and ignoring something that's incredibly important to them.

Shannon Westin: I think that along those lines, kind of taking that to the next step, it would be really helpful to discuss a little bit more around this interaction between sex assigned at birth and gender and what assumptions are made. And I think you kind of started along this, like, how that impacts oncology care. But in your paper, you did, I think, a really great job of really laying out a lot of the problems that happen in this space, and I'd love to explore that more right now.

Dr. Ash Alpert: So sex is a designation made when a baby is born by somebody viewing that baby's external genitalia. And so I think we all, as doctors, know that that designation doesn't necessarily tell us what that person's karyotype is, what their later hormonal milieu will be, what their internal anatomy is, and it certainly can't tell us anything about their gender, which is how someone sees themselves as a man, woman, nonbinary, or something else, and usually develops around the age of four. And even though I think that we all know that, we're so used to sex and gender being used interchangeably, not just in the ways that we talk to each other, but in everything about the way that we do our work. And so it becomes very difficult to disentangle these concepts for ourselves. 

And we have used sex in particular as a proxy for so many other factors where it doesn't necessarily function. And parts of medicine are based on that. So it's very hard to start to unpack and disentangle those things. For example, the ways that we talk about certain types of cancer can be linked with gender, like we were talking about earlier, women with ovarian cancer, men with prostate cancer. And that's the way that we talk to each other. But it's also in our clinical trial eligibility criteria, sometimes, it's in our patient facing materials, it's in the ways that we name our clinics, the ways that we talk about our work. So then even just sometimes occupying space to get oncology care can be a form of being misgendered. 

Spencer Adams: Yeah, I think it's dangerous to conflate the two, sex and gender. As Ash was saying, that one is a visual inspection, the other is who the person is. And if we claim to be an institution that does patient-centered care, how can we be patient-centered if we are not properly respecting the patient? And to do that, you have to respect their gender as well. I see also one of the things that I want to add to the list is clothing that the patient is offered, especially going to a "women's clinic." We can change that to "reproductive health clinic," but usually the clothing is pink and that may be dysphoria-causing for some of our transgender and gender nonconforming friends. So it truly is in everything that is client facing, that is how the structural building is made. It truly is not just how we talk to each other, but how society runs. 

Shannon Westin: Yeah, let's talk a little bit more about training because I think that will be pretty important as we try to change these things. So the way we're trained in medicine and oncology, regarding sex, regarding gender, how does this negatively impact the health? We've talked a lot about the mental health, definitely impacts, but also, I think, overall physical health.

Dr. Ash Alpert: Well, I think something that we started to talk about, but didn't talk about in detail is not just the conflation of sex and gender, but the ways that this concept of sex is used as a proxy for a number of other factors, including anatomy, hormonal milieu, karyotype, and body size. One of the ways that this becomes problematic is in our laboratory values for example. Laboratory values are developed, as far as I understand it, based on looking at large studies of people that are categorized as women or men and looking at averages. So, averages are helpful, but they can't necessarily tell us about disease or no disease. So, for example, if a large number of cisgender women have iron deficiency that is undiagnosed, and we use their averages, then we're going to continue to underdiagnose iron deficiency anemia going forward. 

So, the ways that we've tried to use sex as a proxy for a number of things doesn't just hurt trans people, but potentially leads to very imprecise data in general. Specifically for trans people, we know that many trans people have negative experiences with care, that this leads to people avoiding care and likely leads to decreased screening for cancer and delayed cancer diagnoses. So we don't have a lot of data about this, but we do have some data to suggest that transgender people may present later with later stage cancers, be less likely to be treated, and have poorer outcomes than cisgender people.

Spencer Adams: And I think it's important to add that there are physicians who will - we call it like, “the trans illness" - but they will blame everything that you're experiencing on the fact that you're transgender or the fact that you're on hormones or the fact that you had the surgery, and say that you need a specialist. So you can't just go to your primary care physician anymore for the flu because they'll just blame it on your medical transition. When we take that into consideration, I think there's a whole host of physical ailments that come from just being denied care. I don't know if that is from the physician's own personal stigma around trans people or just them not being trained in trans healthcare to where they feel confident in going into that room. So it's a twofold attack. First, we need to make doctors who are competent in trans healthcare, and then second, we need to have more inviting spaces for trans and gender nonconforming people.

Shannon Westin: I think the next step is really better understanding this idea around degendering care, specifically in oncology, but I could really talk about medical care as a whole, but let's focus on what you all brought forward in the paper. I would love to hear how we think this idea of degendering care will promote better healthcare. And then, I think, some practical actions. What can we do on a day-to-day basis? And you've already started peppering this through this discussion but I’d love to like bullet point it out for the listener. 

Dr. Ash Alpert: Yeah. So the way we described it on our paper was: “disentangling oncology is a conscious and explicit disentanglement of gender, anatomy, hormonal milieu, karyotype, and other biological factors. In oncology, diagnoses, epidemiology, and knowledge production. As well as,” - and I think this is an important part and that's maybe the harder part of the paper - “eliminating sex from our conceptual framework of bodies and disease”. So, in other words, we're really trying to say that not only do we need to disentangle gender and sex, but we need to debunk the idea that sex is an immutable fact of the body that says something important about a person and their biology. Instead of thinking about sex as this immutable fact of the body, can we really break down and think about what exactly are we measuring? Is it anatomy, hormones, karyotype, size, or stigma? 

In terms of practical actions, some of the things we had in our paper include that oftentimes, the words "woman" or "man" can be replaced with the word "people." So like a very easy change. And actually, ASCO and the NCCN, both in the last few years, have worked to degender their guidelines by doing just this simple change. Then we also need to do this on our websites, in our patient education materials, and in our clinical trial eligibility criteria. Because if you have a trial for prostate cancer that says that one of the inclusion criteria is being male, then whether or not you actually mean that as an inclusion criteria, a transgender woman or her physician may see that as a barrier to enrollment.  

Ensuring that, as Spencer was saying, that gowns, binders, and wigs are available that are gender-neutral are available for all genders. Ensuring that people have access to bathrooms, so making sure gender-neutral bathrooms are available. And often, this is as simple as taking a one-style bathroom and putting a sign on it that says "gender-neutral." Ensuring the names of clinics, mammography suites, and titles do not contain gender. Ensure that intake forms don’t conflate gender with biological factors. For example, in a clinic I used to work in, one of the questions on the intake form was, "If you are a woman, when was your last menstrual period?" Which if I’m a man and I have a period, it might be hard to figure out how to answer that question.  

Spencer Adams: One of the biggest barriers for trans and gender nonconforming people is that intake form. It is the first person that you meet or see when you go to any healthcare establishment because that sets the tone for whether or not this establishment is trans-friendly. If you have, as Ash said, a "for women only" box or descriptor on your intake form, that is a sign that maybe they're not as trans-friendly as they could be. Or if you see "women's clinic" instead of "reproductive health clinic" or whatever, that could be a sign that they may not be as gender-friendly as they could be. These little changes actually make such a big impact on the trans community, and it's something that I believe would be very much appreciated and would close the gap between trans and gender nonconforming people and the medical community.

Dr. Ash Alpert: I know that for me, going to a doctor's office, these small moments, although they may seem small to other people, really add up in terms of stress. People talk about microaggressions, and I think that's really a good way of conceptualizing what it's like to have these little irritations or hits that happen over and over again throughout a clinical encounter. And I think in particular, for folks who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, which can be experienced as a traumatic event, having these recurrent denials of identity on top of that can lead to additive trauma in a way that can be very distressing and have negative sequelae for patients.

Shannon Westin: Yeah, we're trying to look around this idea of allostatic load and how we can actually measure this because I think when we talk to policymakers about this, around not just the trans community, but also around underrepresented minorities, and the stresses that impact their risks of cancer, and how it's not just their race or ethnicity that's driving it, it's all of these microaggressions and everything. We get a lot of like, "Really? That's not science." So, I definitely think doing a better job around being able to objectively measure these other things and move forward in a very objective direction is going to help. Because if one of those things we know it's there, but for people who aren’t as ready to believe or understand that, it helps to have and embed that objective data. So that gets into the epidemiologic potential and cancer prevention.

Dr. Ash Alpert: Yeah. In some ways, we can't do much about the data that have been collected in the past, but we can start to think about them more critically and describe what we think is really going on in what we were calling sex or gender categories. But going forward, we can really think about collecting data on our clinical trials and in our large population-based surveys that actually speak to biological factors. So, if what we're concerned about is whether or not someone has ovaries, we can ask for an anatomy inventory. And when we're interested in hormonal milieu, we can check hormone levels. When we want to know about chromosomes, we can check a karyotype. And if what we're interested in is stigma, then we can ask about stigma, or we can ask about things that we think may cause someone to infer stigma. Once we have data that’s much more nuanced and granular, we’ll be able to better extrapolate it to all people in a much more rigorous and precise way, including trans people.

Spencer Adams: When it comes to cancer treatment and diagnosis within the trans community, it's such a unique thing because we have to consider also the social determinants of health. And this built environment that we've created, such as a hospital or cancer wing, or whatever you want to call it is directly impactful. As you were saying before, this microaggressions that add on and on to our trans friends. So, I think that when we look at the data and we look at stigma, we also have to look at where people are– We have to meet people where they are. It's going to be very difficult to bridge the gap between the medical community and the trans community when it comes to stigma. But if we have competent doctors trained in trans care and not always pushing off for a specialist, then I think we'll get better data. 

One thing that happens to trans people is doctors feel as if they cannot diagnose because being trans is seen as a disorder that they see as out of their wheelhouse. First, they classify it as a disorder, and secondly, they think it's outside of their wheelhouse. So they would refer to an endocrinologist or someone else to provide the care that the person is seeking. We call it the "trans disease" or the "trans injury,” because if I come in with a broken leg and the first thing you say to me is to go to an endocrinologist because we don't understand how hormones work, that's not care, and that's not patient-centered care. And that's what we're all moving towards, I believe. All hospitals are moving towards this patient-centered care. And to do that, to be patient-centered, you have to understand the person as a whole, and you have to be able to treat the whole person and then make a treatment plan that is specialized and custom to that person. This may involve different routes people take in order to feel comfortable or achieve what outcome that they wish to achieve. But it's really a patient-centered approach that we have to drive home in order to make some change. 

Shannon Westin: My last question is, what's next, and how do we get this information out? How do we actually enact? I mean, obviously this podcast reaches a lot of listeners, but beyond that, how can we educate people so that we can make these changes? This is something that hits close to home for me. I recently took over the gynecologic cancer center, which is where we house all below the belt malignancies. But there's work in progress, and we're discussing an overarching center to cover breast and gynecologic malignancies. And there's a discussion around how to title that. One of the suggestions was that it should be a "women's center," or something like that and that is not in line with what we've just been speaking about. So I think, certainly, that kind of individualized, like boots on the ground, people that are willing to speak up and say things and try to change these types of things, and I fully intend to do that - fingers crossed that it won't be me just waving my tiny fists in the air.  

But more broadly, I’d love to see more education at ASCO, large oncology symposia and conferences. It needs to go to the people who are not aware. It can't just be an echo chamber of people who have already been talking about this and are already knee-deep. It needs to reach the broader oncology community so that people realize that this is an issue that involves all of us and that we all need to be addressing. And like you said, even simple things around replacing language and saying people and making sure that the trial eligibility are broad, those simple things that individuals can do can. But I also think like NCCN and ASCO, we have to do something around the organizational levels to really make an impact. 

Dr. Ash Alpert: Yeah. And I think that the things that we talked about the we can do as individual clinicians, there’s the things that large institutions like NCCN and ASCO can do to sort of send out the inclusive messaging that is needed. And I think in the middle, we can create teams that are institutions of folks who we can be in allyship with to think about what are the most urgent changes that need to happen and the most feasible changes and start with those and then just keep going. Some of the changes that we make now will help us in the years to come, so I think being focused on the now and the future at the same time is helpful. 

Spencer Adams: I think that the teams within our individual institutions is really a great approach to this. When it comes to figuring out the next steps to be more gender-inclusive, I really think that institutions should get data from their community. They should understand the makeup of their community and see if that is something that aligns with the makeup of their hospital. Because we can go and talk about doctors getting training in trans care or more doctors of color being in your hospital to make the BIPOC community feel more accepting. But if we don't have teams whether it’s diversity, equity, and inclusion teams, or whatever you want to call it, that are willing to push to make policy change within the hospital, then there will be no movement. So, we really need to get people within their hospitals to give them the power to really push what has been taught for so long and really challenge the status quo and allow us to move forward with gender equity.

Shannon Westin: Well, I think that is the perfect mic drop moment, and I just want to thank both of my guests. Spencer, this was awesome and I always take copious notes when I talk with you all because I learn so much. It inspires me to try to do what I can at my institution and within the field of gynecologic oncology to make things better. So I hope that others who are listening are just as inspired as I am.

And to our listeners, thanks again for tuning into another episode of JCO After Hours. Please check out our other podcast offerings wherever you get your podcasts. Have a wonderful day.

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional medical care and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions.   

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an endorsement by ASCO.