Research conducted within the Black Women’s Health Study at Boston University School of Public Health recently found a link between childhood abuse and fibroids. The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, included 9,910 black women from across the country and found a higher incidence of fibroids among women who had experienced childhood abuse (physical or sexual) compared with women who had not experienced any abuse.
A uterine fibroid is a non-cancerous tumor that grows in the wall of the uterus. Fibroids can grow as a single tumor or there can be many. Most fibroids cause no symptoms but women who have symptoms may experience heavy bleeding, pain during sexual intercourse and complications during pregnancy and labor.
Black women are three times more likely to have fibroids than white women. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier age, have fibroids grow more quickly and more likely to have symptoms.
Unfortunately, researchers do not know what causes fibroids. Dr. Wise, the lead researcher on the Black Women’s Health study, says if confirmed with future studies, childhood abuse might be added to the list of potential causes of fibroids. She believes the study findings are very helpful for those in the health field. “The findings may increase health practitioners’ awareness that women who have experienced stressors like childhood abuse may have an elevated risk for fibroids.”
Many women lament about how tired and stressed out they feel. What they don’t know is that stress may be making them sick. Researchers have concluded that stress increases risk for many physical health problems. Dr. Amani Nuru-Jeter, Associate Professor at UC Berkeley School of Public Health and expert on the impact of stress and health explains, “stress finds its way into our bodies and has physical consequences, such as the development of chronic conditions like fibroids…childhood sexual abuse is considered a chronic stressor because those experiences can remain with a person long after it has occurred. The stress experience can repeat itself over and over until the issue is resolved.”
Dr. Gail Wyatt, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and director of the UCLA Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities has found in her research that women with a history of childhood abuse have much higher levels of stress. However, she says, “this issue is so complex that many factors need to be considered when looking at the impact of childhood abuse on health; including a lack of consistent health care which might impact the findings.” Wyatt is also author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives.
Dr. Paula Randolph, practicing gynecologist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University Medical Center also feels that there are many possible explanations. Dr. Randolph explains, “women who are abused are more likely to complain about abdominal pain and may show up to the doctor more than others. This would lead to being tested and discovering fibroids.”
If you have experienced childhood abuse it does not mean you are destined to have fibroids. The Women’s Health study found that women who were abused as children but got support from others — family, friends, counseling — were less likely to get fibroids than those without support.
Dr. Nuru-Jeter of UC Berkeley adds that her research has found certain coping skills are associated with inflammation in the body, which can make one more vulnerable to health conditions like fibroids. She explains, “these coping skills including things like suppressing one’s emotions, not asking for help, ignoring pain and taking care of others at the expense of oneself have been associated with poor health outcomes.” Her research has found that many black women identify with the idea of being a superwoman and although it can give one a sense of control, it can also be bad for their health because it leads to them not getting help when they notice something is wrong.
Here are recommendations for black women who may be experiencing chronic stress:
- Beware of becoming a ‘Superwoman.’ Take more time for self-care, including going to the doctor as soon as you notice a problem.
- Don’t be embarrassed about any traumatic experiences you may have had in your childhood. Talk with a trained professional — counselor, faith leader, therapist — about abuse experiences you may have had.
- Enlist the assistance of families and friends. Ask others for help with household tasks and childcare.
- Role model healthy habits to your children. Teach the next generation of girls and young women the importance of stress management and getting social support.
Dr. Scyatta A. Wallace is an award winning Psychologist/Teen Expert, Associate Professor of Psychology and Founder of Janisaw Company. Dr. Wallace’s work focuses on health issues impacting youth and families.