Dear Sistergirlfriend: We need to talk…
The three top killers of sisters are HIV/AIDS, heart disease and cancer…in that order. I’m not trying to scare you, but you should be concerned, and I’m concerned for ya! I’m not gonna preach at you about using condoms or being selective with your partners or to watch your cholesterol, manage stress, etc. What I do want to talk about, is your mind.
We know better about the things we should be doing or avoiding, but sometimes we play these games with ourselves about what’s real. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking things happen to other people, but not to us; or we try to ignore it and “will it away.” Or, we “pray on it” and “give it to God.”
With everything that is killing us, it’s not just the disease itself that’s killing us. It’s also that we’re not doing anything about it until it’s too late.
Late diagnoses — i.e., waiting until the last minute to get checked out, even though you know something’s wrong, and then not following up on prescribed treatment protocol, or otherwise not seeking out available support and resources — are the leading causes of death among Black women, more so than any other group of women.
Brass tacks: Two in three new AIDS cases are Black women. One major cause of this disparity is poverty. Persons living below the poverty line have minimal access to good health care. One in four Black women lives in poverty.
African American women have high rates of STIs — sexually transmitted infections. Left untreated, transmission is possible through broken skin or sexual contact. Because African Americans are least likely to have sexual encounters with individuals outside of their race, the disease is circulated through our community faster with each new encounter.
About one in five African Americans don’t know their HIV status and don’t want to know. Late diagnosis hinders preventative or maintenance solutions that could help folks lead healthy lives despite HIV.
What to do
Know that signs, sores, bumps may not be visible. Just because a person looks okay doesn’t mean they are. Ask about your partner’s status. Know yours.
If you know a person is promiscuous, ask. If you can’t get a straight answer, don’t engage in sex with that person. PERIOD. If they talk a lotta yang or promise you they’re “okay,” trust your gut.
Use a condom, dental dam or some type of barrier during sex. Know that oral, anal, vaginal sex, or the exchange of any body fluids, i.e. blood, semen, vaginal secretions, are all avenues for transmission.
Every minute a Black woman dies to heart disease. Heart disease is a collection of issues affecting the blood vessels and heart. Prominent amongst them is coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of heart attacks.
Atherosclerosis occurs when the surrounding arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle lose their elasticity, becoming hardened and narrowed because of plaque build-up inside the artery. The causes of plaque include high intake of fat, cholesterol, fibrin or calcium build-up.
Black women are not as active and are least likely to work out or follow a fitness regimen. Being overweight or obese are the perfect conditions for arterial plaque buildup and disease. Higher rates of elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and limited awareness of our elevated risks all contribute to the high incidence of mortality amongst women of color.
Some of the symptoms are subtle and barely noticeable. It’s important to pay attention to uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
Other warning signs are pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms; chest discomfort with light-headedness; fainting; sweating; nausea or shortness of breath; chest pain that’s short and sharp; stomach, back or arm pain; unexplained anxiety; fatigue and palpitations; and cold sweat or paleness.
What to do
Stop smoking. Eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol, including a serving of fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise at least three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes a day. Or, if you need to, do brief 10 minute sessions, consistently and gradually building your way up.
Keep your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Know your family history and your own risk factors.
Of late, more focus has been placed on breast cancer, and rightfully so. Black women are still 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than White women, despite the fact that mortality rates are declining for other racial groups of women, according to the CDC. This, again, points to late diagnoses and lack of follow through and/or access to resources. Women are not getting mammograms like they should.
However, cervical cancer is another one to watch. Each year, 11,000 women die of cervical cancer, according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Of the 2,000 Black women diagnosed, over 40 percent will die from the disease.
As with all other health disparities impacting our community, this one is also preventable or manageable. And, like the others, Sisters know a fair amount about this disease, yet are twice as likely to die from it than Caucasian women or Latinas. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV can also lead to cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, throat and penis.
What to do
All women should begin cervical cancer screening within three years after they start having sex and no later than age 21. Screening should be done every year with a regular Pap test.
Beginning at age 30, women who have had three normal Pap test results in a row may get screened every two to three years. Women older than 30 may also get screened every three years with either the conventional or liquid-based Pap test, plus the human papilloma virus (HPV) test.
Use a condom during intercourse with a new partner.
Sisters, we must get real. We gamble with ourselves every day assuming our bodies can handle themselves, but our bodies are organic. If we don’t maintain a favorable environment for them, they will decay faster than they are meant to.
It’s time to make grown-up decisions about our health and wellness. Instead of reacting to health issues, we must be proactive about taking care of ourselves, putting in the work to exercise, make better food preparation choices and making better choices with sexual partners and activity.
Above all, we must take care of our hearts, our minds, our souls. These diseases are of the heart — we must take care of it figuratively and physically. You have to create a set of life principles that you live by and hold yourself to. You are all you’ve got.
Anika Robbins is a beauty and wellness expert. A cosmetology educator, she is the co-owner of the Robbins Urban Wellness Retreat offering programs on chiropractic, nutrition, massage and beauty. She travels extensively promoting health, beauty and empowerment through her company, ANIKA INTERNATIONAL. She welcomes reader responses to 612-670-6355 or via email: [email protected].