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By Orisabiyi Williams, Contributor
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African American women have more severe menstrual cycles than white women; it can be caused by uterine fibroids.
For five years, I suffered from long, painful periods. My cycles featured heavy bleeding and sometimes lasted for 15 days. I suffered from fatigue, dry skin, hair loss, and the annoying sound of my heartbeat in my ear. Like most women, I wrote it off the cause of these systems as being overworked, tired from extreme exercise, and sleep deprivation.
When the hair loss worsened, I made an appointment with my gynecologist. I knew it would be a trying appointment because the nurse was concerned her equipment was malfunctioning when she took my heart rate. After using a second machine, she confirmed that my heart rate was extremely high.
When the doctor probed my abdomen, she suspected that I had fibroids. To confirm, she ordered blood work and took an ultrasound of my uterus.
The ultrasound revealed five fibroids; the largest was the size of a grapefruit. And my blood test results showed that I was severely anemic; my hemoglobin was 4.2.
Normal hemoglobin levels for women should be between 12.0 and 15.5.
My doctor sent me immediately to the hospital to get a blood transfusion. Without a transfusion, I wouldn’t have lived out the next week. My heart was over-compensating for my low hemoglobin levels, which would have eventually caused me to pass out and go into cardiac arrest.
After two days of blood transfusions and partial hysterectomy the following week, it took over a year for my body to get back to normal.
It’s crazy because I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t realize how sick I was.
Fibroids are non-cancerous tumors that grow in the wall of the uterus, causing heavy bleeding and painful periods.
My diagnosis spurred me to research fibroids and their causes. The research revealed that African American women are three times more likely to develop uterine fibroids. And we are getting them at much younger ages. Anecdotally, most African American women that I know have long periods, so it seems normal to have a longer-than-eight-day cycle.
If women perceive that this symptom is normal and healthy, then they are less likely to go to a doctor because they don’t know they have a problem.
Some studies have linked the use of hair relaxers, or perms, to the fact that African American women have fibroids at higher rates than white women. In 2012, a Boston University study stated that black women who use hair relaxers are slightly at a higher risk of developing uterine fibroids.
Curly Nikki, a hair blogger, provides an in-depth analysis of the study, but she succinctly captures the scary implications of the study: “The study suggests that use [of chemical hair relaxers], in general, is correlated with fibroid development; the more you use it, the more frequently you use it, the longer you have used it, and the more often your scalp is burned during use, the more likely you are to develop uterine fibroids.”
Treatments for fibroids vary depending on the severity. There is a hormonal medication you can take called Gonadotropin, which shrinks the fibroids, IUDs can help by relieving heavy bleeding, and other medicines can treat but not remove fibroids.
Some medical procedures can help, such as uterine artery embolization; Myolysis, which is a laparoscopic procedure; and endometrial ablation with hysterectomy, which is the end result.
Awareness of fibroids has been growing through organizations such as The White Dress Project, founded by Tanika Gray, whose mother lost two sets of twins because of her fibroids.
Gynecological health must be emphasized to girls at a young age by teaching them what they should expect with a normal period.
Chemicals that we put on our scalp go into our bloodstream. The number of African-American women getting their hair relaxed has gone down quite a bit over the years, but unfortunately, the products are still in use.
Chris Rock used his documentary “Good Hair,” which chronicles the African American hair-care industry, to bring attention to the dangers of the chemicals in relaxers and their long-term use.
If you have any of these symptoms, please make an appointment with your gynecologist: Your life depends on it.