I had the pleasure of meeting Monique Brown, author of A Sistah Thing: A Guide to Understanding and Dealing with Fibroids for Black Women. When I told her that I was interested in interviewing her, she immediately and graciously said yes. Our interview is below.
W&F: Ms. Brown, thank you for agreeing to talk to me. I know that the issue of fibroids is very personal and close to your heart. For those not familiar with the term "fibroids," would you please explain what they are.
MRB: Fibroids are non-cancerous tumors of the uterus, made up of muscle cells that start to over produce. If anyone tells you that you could have cancer or could develop cancer because you have fibroids--they are wrong! By definition, fibroids are non-cancerous. Still, they can wreak a lot of havoc as they begin to grow, causing symptoms such as pelvic pain, heavy or irregular bleeding, longer periods, bloating, back aches, sciatica, and in extreme cases, kidney failure, infertility, or miscarriage.
W&F: Do you recall at what age you first noticed that something was not quite right?
MRB: In my mid twenties, I noticed that something wasn't quite right. I was at the library and experienced this leaky faucet sensation. After rushing to the ladies room, I realized that I was in the "red"--literally. I couldn't understand why I was bleeding because my period wasn't due. From that point, my irregular bleeding became more frequent until it was nearly nonstop.
W&F: You saw many physicians to no avail. Yet you did not become discouraged and discontinue your quest to become fibroid free. What kept you motivated?
MRB: Honestly, I didn't feel I had any other choice. My fibroid situation was becoming so bad it was nearly debilitating. It got to the point where I rarely left the house because the bleeding was out of control. My fibroids grew to the point where I looked about five months pregnant and couldn't fit into any of my clothes. The pain that accompanied the fibroids as they became large was nearly unbearable. I sought help because I needed some relief. Unfortunately, I didn't know it would take years before I could finally get the solution that I badly needed. Now, I tell women to connect with the right resource sooner rather than later.
W&F: I know that you were a senior editor at Black Enterprise Magazine. It must have been a nightmare dealing with your extreme condition during that time. How did fibroids affect your business and your personal life?
MRB: Like other professionals, I did what I had to do to succeed in the workforce. I did my job to the best of my ability, bit my tongue, kept my personal problems to myself and put on a happy face. That was what I was supposed to do because no employee should expect their employer to take on the burdens of her own personal life. But where I fell short, however, was that I didn't seek help outside of my job. Keeping up a front at work is one thing, but you should have someone in your life that allows you to be transparent. If not, you begin to slowly pick away at your physical and mental health and that's what I was allowing to happen to me. So on the outside things looked fine (at least that's how I saw it) but on the inside I was crumbling and nearly suicidal.
W&F: I read in your book that, "According to the Center for Uterine Fibroids at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, 80 percent of all women have fibroids and they are three to nine times more common in African American women." Those odds are difficult for any woman -- for African American women, the odds are staggering. Where you surprised to learn this?
MRB: I absolutely was surprised. Initially, I directed the book to black women because I didn't see any fibroid books on the market that were specifically directed at us and I wanted the guide to be unique. It wasn't until I started conducting the research that I discovered that fibroids are a major problem in our community.
W&F: I know that fibroids can be genetic and run in families, so a family member or physician may tell a person, "Don't worry about it ." What is your response to that? Do you advise seeking help anyway?
MRB: We don't really say that fibroids are "genetic." We say that they tend to appear in families but in actuality, fibroids are so common that just about every woman you know has them even if they don't know it yet. What seem to run in families are the bad habits that may contribute to fibroid growth. So rather than assume we are prone to fibroids just because our mothers or sisters have them, what we should do is ditch some of the bad habits that have been passed down from generation to generation. We should cut out the bad foods (such as sugar, white flour, red meat, dairy products and caffeine), reduce the stress, and see our doctors regularly so we can catch any health problems in their early stages.
W&F: Are there different ways to treat fibroids?
MRB: Yes, there are many ways to treat fibroids. You can just leave them alone, if you don't have symptoms. Or you can choose to just take an aspirin or Tylenol if your symptoms are mild. If your fibroids are small, you might want to experiment with natural remedies under the guidance of a physician, naturopath and dietician. Some women have experienced some relief throuh dietary changes and exercise. A widely publicized method that is available is uterine artery embolization (UAE) but it's not for everyone. In this method, an interventional radiologist (IR) inserts particles through an artery in your groin area to help block the blood flow to your fibroids. Results have been mixed and some women report having to go back for a more radical surgery, such as a myomectomy (where they remove the fibroids and leave the uterus in tact), or a hysterectomy (where the uterus is removed).
W&F: Some women get nervous about any change in their body but still hesitate to see a doctor. You know the type. She thinks a pimple may be cancerous, however, will not go to a doctor, because the pimple may be cancerous. Can you offer a few words of encouragement to these women.
MRB: Knowledge is the key when making any health decision. As with anything else, waiting doesn't make things go away, it can only make matters worse. Fibroids are easier to treat when they are smaller and there are more options available to treat them. Once your fibroids become larger and as you age, surgery becomes your only option. Also know that your decision to do nothing is still a decision. So why not think your options through and be responsible for your own healing.
W&F: I understand that fibroids may cause infertility or if a woman is already pregnant, early labor. Since writing "It's A Sistah Thing," you have gotten married and you and your husband have been blessed with a child. Did you have complications during your pregnancy?
MRB: Actually my pregnancy was very uneventful. No morning sickness, no bleeding, no aches and pains, no early labor, and no other complications of any sort. It was all good. The fibroids, however, did return and started to grow, but they didn't cause any trouble whatsoever. I was truly blessed.
As far as my delivery was concerned, because of my prior two surgeries, it was highly recommended that my baby be delivered by C-section. And though this is a very popular delivery option these days, I was still concerned because surgery--particularly one where blood loss and anesthesia are involved--is serious business. Fortunately, things went relatively well and my new son, Tyler Daniel Ifeanyi McKenzie, is doing great!
W&F: You talk about building a support team. How important is that?
MRB: A support team is essential in dealing with health issues as well as life's daily challenges. Having a group of people that are willing to help you cope is important because they prove to you that your situation isn't you unique and help you keep things in perspective. For me, having a support team helped me make the choice to go through with a surgery that I needed as well as re-evaluate some other things that were causing me grief. This was important because some theories say that fibroids are stress related. When I began to identify my stressors, I was able to minimize some of my symptoms.
W&F: Tell me -- why did you decide to write, "It's a Sistah Thing?"
MRB: I decided to write this book for several reasons. For one, writing is a way of healing--at least for me. By recapping the challenging experiences I had with fibroids, I was able to release those experiences into the universe so I could move on to other things that were happening in my life. In addition, writing a book on fibroids allowed me to share some valuable information with black women. Since I am an advocate for women of color on many levels, this was important. Finally, this book enabled me to reconnect with two passions of mine--writing and health.
W&F: What will readers find in the book?
MRB: The interactive guide serves several purposes. It allows me to share important medical information in a non-technical, user-friendly manner. This enables readers to gain valuable information about fibroids such as what they are, why they are thought to develop, and the available treatment options so they can talk more intelligently with their medical practitioners. To help them choose the right medical resources, the guide tells readers the right questions to ask, the answers they should receive along with a list of websites they can use to evaluate their doctors. Beyond that, the book details my fibroid ordeal and includes the stories of other fibroid sufferers so sisters know that they are not alone in their quest for a solution.
W&F: Just one last question please -- how are you feeling these days?
MRB: Thanks for asking, I am feeling great. Since I am currently breastfeeding and my estrogen levels are low, the fibroids are at a standstill. More importantly, I have taken some valuable time to acquaint myself with my beautiful son and bask in the joys of motherhood.
W&F: Thank you Ms. Brown. Many blessings to you for sharing your experience and your knowledge with Work & Family.
It's a Sistah Thing: A Guide to Understanding and Dealing with Fibroids for Black Women
Please visit the Sistah Thing site at Sistah Thing for further information concerning Ms Brown and It's a Sistah Thing. In addition to being a published author, Monique Brown is the founder of Professional Women of Color, a nonprofit organization that supports African American and Latino women business and professional women. Learn more about Professional Woman of Color