New book and American Cancer Society report put focus on black women
Two new publications, The Black Woman’s Guide to Healthy Living, and the American Cancer Society’s report “Cancer Facts & Giftures for African Americans,” shine a spotlight squarely on black women’s health. And for good reason: They’re more likely than white women to succumb to top killers. African-American women are 35 percent more likely to die from heart disease, for example, according to the National Women’s Health Information Center. African-Americans overall don’t get the same level of heart disease care as whites because they don’t undergo the same tests and treatments.
A lack of standard care can lead to late diagnoses of cancer as well, resulting in poorer survival rates for African-Americans than for whites. The Black Woman’s Guide to Healthy Living , which was compiled by editors at Essence, lists the top cancer threats for black women as those of the lung, breast, and colon. African-Americans are less likely than whites to survive five years after being diagnosed with most types of cancer, according to the ACS report. And while the racial disparity in death rates from cancer is declining, in 2005, the death rate for all cancers combined was 16 percent higher in African-American women and 33 percent higher in African-American men and than in white women and men, respectively.
According to the medical experts whose advice forms the basis of The Black Woman’s Guide to Healthy Living, here’s what women can do to raise their odds of good health:
Get recommended screenings. Ask your doctor which diseases you should be screened for regularly. According to the American Cancer Society, just 64.9 percent of African-American women ages 40 and older in 2005 said they’d had a mammogram in the prior two years, compared with 68.1 percent of white women; 49.9 percent said they’d had a mammogram in the previous year, compared with 52.9 percent of white women. Women ages 40 and older should get mammograms annually, and they should have yearly breast exams by a healthcare professional, suggests the American Cancer Society. (White women clearly are falling short, too.)
Regular Pap smears are called for, and women should consider regualr screening for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. “We know that sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, , are extremely common, and women don’t know everything that they should know about STIs, how to prevent those infections,” says Hilda Hutcherson, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University in New York, who was interviewed for the Essence book. It may be up to you to ask to be tested. “Sometimes, the doctor may just assume that if you want it, you’re going to ask for it yourself,” Hutcherson says.
Colorectal cancer screening rates have also been traditionally low among African-Americans. In 1987, just 18 percent of African-American women and 15 percent of African-American men said they’d had a recent test; in 2005, those rates had increased to 40 percent—a vast improvement but still not as high as health officials would like to see.
Exercise regularly. African-American women and girls are more likely to be overweight and obese than their white counterparts, according to the ACS’s new report. And obesity ups the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many cancers. Few black women say they exercise regularly, according to the 2006 National Health Interview Survey, yet regular physical activity has a number of health benefits, including weight management, chronic disease prevention, and improving your mood. The book suggests focusing on a combination of cardio and strength training in your 20s. By the time you reach your 40s, try combining cardiovascular and toning exercises. And yes, you can still afford a good worktout, even during a recession.
Eat right. If you’re single in your 20s, focus on cooking healthful meals for yourself. In your 30s, 40s, and beyond, make it a family affair. A cookbook called Heart Healthy Home Cooking African Aermcian Style With Every Heart Beat Is Life (sold by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for $4 apiece), offers advice for cooking 26 African-American dishes in a way that is good for the heart.
Don’t give up, even if diabetes, high blood pressure, or other problems put you at higher risk for other chronic diseases. “There’s much that can be done, so do not have a fatalistic attitude,” says Michelle Johnson, assistant chief of cardiology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City, who also contributes advice in the book. It’s never “too late to change,” she says.