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The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Chemical relaxers linked to high uterine fibroid risk among African-American Women? I doubt it

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photo by Alecia Hoyt Photography

I sport an afro or natural hair, but I use to have a perm. About a year ago, I shared my hair journey with Afrobella at Essence. com: Natural Hair Diary: Danielle N. Lee, Scientist. When I was younger, I sat between my mother/older cousin/aunt/grandmother's legs with jar of grease, cup of water, and tin of barrettes at the ready. Each morning I braced myself for the rough brushing, parting, plaiting, and smoothing down of edges with blue or green grease. By junior high school I was a big girl and I could wear my hair down. Each week I got my hair washed and then I held on tightly to my ears and held my head down obediently as my 'kitchen 'was attended to - a press and curl. For the rest of the week I was in charge of rolling, combing, and oiling my scalp each day. By high school and college, I was getting chemical relaxers or perms. As we - Black females - transition from elementary to junior high or middle school and then to high school, our hair styles change, as does the hair rituals and regiments. Relaxers seem to be a rite of passage for Black females. It was something that mature, often professional women did. The box recommends touch-ups every 6-8 weeks. I hated getting relaxers so much that I would stretch it out 3-4 months. Finally, one day 13 years ago instead of getting a touch up, I had my beautician cut all of the chemically processed hair off. I was left with 2-3 inches of new growth or virgin hair.

I was eleven when I got my very first relaxer. That was also the age I was when I got my first period. But little more than a year before either of these landmarks I was having my first traumatic 'lady problems' episode. I had spent two days bending over, clutching my right side, and crying in pain. It was when I starting vomiting that my mother took me to the pediatrician. I tried my best to stretch out on the table as Dr. Dancy pressed on my lower abdomen. I screamed in pain. Since I hadn't had my first cycle yet, and I wasn't wearing a training bra, they all feared appendicitis. My mother nearly died when she was 12 years from a ruptured appendix. I saw the fear in her eyes when the doctor said, take her to the hospital, now!

I spent 4 days in the hospital. I was ultra-sounded, X-rayed, and palpated in every imaginable matter. They quickly eliminated appendicitis, but they were still uncertain as to my ailment. I was hooked to an IV, had my blood drawn daily and put on a restricted diet. What I remembered most was being SO Hungry.

In the end, they determined I had ovarian cysts. Cysts?! That sounded a whole lot like cancer to me and I was afraid. They assured me that cysts were not cancerous. I had to be careful and that they would keep on eye on them as I grew up and started having my periods. Other than monthly cramping (Midol or Pamprin took care of all that PMS stuff) my lady issues seemed uneventful.

Until one day, completely out of the blue, I started bleeding and wouldn't stop. At first I had no cramps. I was driving in the work car and felt warmness and then it felt like something passing through me. A few minutes later, sudden and severe pain kicked. I realized what was happening. I'm bleeding! Am I having a miscarriage? I didn't know. Thankfully I was with female co-workers and they calmly handled the manner and rushed me to the Emergency Room.

There I was being poked and prodded and this time with speculums and transvaginal ultra sound wands, and stuck with IV and blood collection needles. It was pretty traumatic. It was there that I heard the radiologist whisper to herself - Fibroid. I was stabilized and sent home to recuperate. Two weeks later I went to my OBGYN who looked over the hospital charts and did another exam. Nothing spectacular. What about fibroids? I asked. I heard the radiologist say she thought she saw fibroids. He looked a the MRI results and the less-than conclusive ultra sound (I was in a lot of pain and was swelling, the ultra sounds couldn't get clear images), and looked over my history. His response: Nah, I don't think that's it. Maybe just an adverse reaction to Depo-Provera. It can do that?! I asked. Yes, he said. Until that moment I had none of the symptoms typical of uterine fibroids. And after that incident I never did.

Uterine Fibroids are tumors, usually benign - not cancerous, that grow from the uterus. Most women diagnosed with fibroids complain of very heavy periods, lots of PMS cramps, lower back pain and painful intercourse. Other than a growing bloated feeling, I felt fine - and I chalked that up to my weight gain. But more than a year after the incident, I went in for my annual exam and my nurse practitioner remarked, "Uh oh" as she was palpating me on the right side. "Uh oh, what?" I asked. She said my womb felt "full", like a fibroid was present. She authorized diagnostic tests and 2 weeks later it was confirmed. I had uterine fibroids.

This is a uterine fibroid. My fibroid, in fact.

In addition to the main bulb which was about the size of a small grapefruit, my fibroids were knobby and growing 'appendages'.

 

That is my uterus in the top right section of this picture. The fibroids were growing outside of it. Sometimes they grow inside of the uterus or within the walls of the uterus.

I was the latest among my girlfriends who had discovered she had fibroids. Among 30-something African-American women, uterine fibroids are common. Very common. But no one knows exactly why uterine fibroids develop or why Black women seem to get them more than women from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Some studies suggest it could hormonal - since it affects women of child-bearing age but who have no children most often. It also seems to happen to over-weight women more. Check, check, check, and check.

Because of the disparity, there have been some studies trying to understand why and how uterine fibroids disproportionally affects Black women. Since it is a reproductive tract related problem, studies focus on physiological explanations. Hormones seem to be at play, though it is not certain what the mechanisms are. We do know that after menopause fibroids shrink and the complications associated with them disappear. If, the tumors are hormone-sensitive, which I believe they may be, then diet and weight make since. Body fat is metabolically important to gonadal hormones, especially estrogen-family hormones. Estrogen is very sensitive to body fat and circulating fat levels in the blood stream. In fact, the switch that signals the female body to start puberty is fat-sensitive. Once the female body reaches a certain weight and body fat composition, her hypothalamus and pituitary gland send signals to the ovaries (and the rest of the body) that this little girl is ready to be a woman. Primary or vertical growth begins to halt and now that energy is directed to secondary sexual characteristics like growing breasts, and hips, and preparing for monthly menses. Fat is so important to female menses that under-weight women and also some athletic women fail to have periods sometimes.

So when this came across my Twitter feed from The Root

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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