Are black women more vulnerable to fibroids?

Mother and daughter embrace
Mother and daughter embrace

It could be the size of a grape, as hefty as a lemon or as enormous as a watermelon. But it doesn’t matter if it’s microscopic in size or large and in charge – fibroids wreak havoc on your health. 

And here’s the unfortunate news: “It’s likely that if you’re black and over the age of 20, you have a fibroid,” is the research from the Yale University School of Medicine’s department of reproductive sciences.

Fibroids are benign swellings, growths and knots of muscle tissue that form on or outside your uterus. You could have a single fibroid or multiples, and might not even know it until the symptoms become too obvious to ignore. 

We’re not talking your garden variety aches and pains here, either. Think heavy bleeding, cramping, lower back pain, pain during sex, and constant fatigue – on steroids. Amped up to an excruciating level.

You’re bleeding for days, going on weeks with no signs of it abating, and the pain in your abdominal area is so intense that no amount of painkillers make a dent.  
The other fatal impact of fibroids is on your fertility and researchers say that over 80% of black women are susceptible to fibroids. 

Hair, weight and more

No-one can quite pinpoint why black women in particular are vulnerable to fibroids. Rather, it seems that a confluence of dubious factors create the perfect hosting ground for the condition. 

Your weight is an important factor here, especially if you’re obese or overweight. And plenty of South African women are overweight, say the latest statistics; with almost 42% of women in this danger zone. Fibroids greedily glom on to oestrogen and accumulate and grow as your body produces more oestrogen, which itself can be overproduced by excess abdominal fat. Doctors suggest that losing the extra weight can go a long way in reducing your risk for fibroids. 

While you’re at it, it’s absolutely worth looking at your diet. The not-good-for-fibroids food list includes animal products (especially ham and red meat), peanuts, wheat, yams, spicy and fried foods, salty and processed foods and excessive alcohol. These triggers all feed and grow fibroids. It’s not just food and excess weight you need to worry about. 

Another factor that’s specific to black women’s propensity for fibroids is a condition called central centrifugal cicatrical alopecia; a fancy term for the scar tissue that’s left behind from hair loss. This is reportedly the most common form of alopecia among black women, and if you have it, you are at a higher risk for fibroids, more so if you use hair relaxers and straightening products.

Researchers have found that hair relaxers contain harmful chemicals that significantly affect your risk of uterine fibroids. These culprits are known as phthalates – the chemicals in your products that emit fragrance. Phthalates are tricky as they can stimulate the production of oestrogen, spurring on more fibroid growth.

Here’s a handy little exercise: take a gander at the ingredients list on your shampoo, conditioner, hair dye, and even cosmetic products. Most contain phthalates; also disguised on the label as DEP, DBP, DEHP and fragrance. 

How serious can it get?

Left unchecked, fibroids can grow from the little grape to that very dangerous watermelon; bringing with it more than just painful cramps and intermittent bleeding.

If you’ve felt any of the common symptoms and you notice your stomach is constantly distended and bloated, don’t wait until you feel worse. Some women have felt literally and figuratively on the verge of death from fibroids. Spoiler alert: this woman’s fibroid grew to the size of a six-month-old foetus!

And if you’re trying for a baby, or planning on getting pregnant, you need to fix this issue. These growths can physically change the shape of your cervix, limiting the number of sperm that can enter the uterus.

Fibroids can also block your Fallopian tubes, effectively thwarting the trajectory of a fertilised egg, and even weakening the uterine cavity lining – which could ultimately lead to a miscarriage. 

Your first win is regular screening tests. Go get yourself checked out. Don’t ignore the signs until it’s too late.

Disheartening research shows that black women are much more likely than other races to experience the symptoms of fibroids for longer periods before getting medical help. The same study also points out that through genetic predisposition, black women are likelier to suffer a severe lack of Vitamin D; so it’s worth speaking to your doctor about this. You might need to bone up with a Vitamin D supplement.

To know whether you have fibroids, your doctor may only be able to do a diagnosis through a pelvic exam to check the health of your uterus, ovaries and vagina. Imaging tests confirm the diagnosis through an ultrasound, X-ray, CAT scan (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Depending on your type of fibroids, treatment varies. For fibroids that come with mild symptoms, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories or painkillers for the pain. In other cases, your options include:

  • Myomectomy: Surgery to remove fibroids without taking the healthy tissue of the uterus
  • Hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus. This surgery is done when there are large fibroids, heavy bleeding, or you’re either near or past menopause or don’t want and children in the future
  • Endometrial ablation: The lining of the uterus is removed or destroyed to control severe bleeding
  • Myolysis: A needle is inserted into the fibroids. This is done through a laparoscopy using an electric current or freezing to destroy the fibroids
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