Dear 17-year-old Gloria,

While I know you are truly enjoying your teenaged years — schools, parties, dates — I wanted to write to let you know somethings you should be preparing yourself for. First, all those admonitions from your parents to brush and floss are not just parental nagging. As your eyes are the windows to your soul, your teeth (and your gums) are the gateway to your heart. Bacteria from your mouth from failure to brush and floss regularly travels into your blood stream and can exacerbate heart conditions. 

You are probably tired of your parents telling you that you must eat your vegetables! That’s not just something that parents say to get on your nerves. Your eating habits will have long-term effects on your health. As a young Black woman, your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, kidneys, and weight may all be impacted by your diet. Did you know that Black women have the highest rate of obesity in the U.S.? There are all kinds of reason for that. What amounts to “comfort” food for us — fried chicken or fish, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, peach cobbler, and sweet potato pie — all evoke images of family fun and loving relatives. Unfortunately, over indulgence in those foods can lead to obesity.

Gloria, you also need to pay attention to your family health history. You will see that almost all your relatives on your mother’s side will suffer from hypertension, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Unfortunately, strokes will be very prominent on your mother’s side. But genetics are not necessarily destiny. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise can help you live a longer, healthier life.  But not everything lines up the way you plan or anticipate. Life will throw you some health curve balls. One of those curve balls might be breast cancer.

In 1991 when you move to Madison, Wisconsin, one of the pieces of news you will receive is that you have breast cancer. Talk about being thrown for a loop. At that time, you will learn that breast cancer impacts 1 in 11 women, however, by the time you have a second breast cancer diagnosis the level of incidence will be 1 in 8! You will learn that the biggest “risk” factor being diagnosed with breast cancer is not diet, weight, or even genetics. The biggest risk factor for receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is being a woman.

Your involvement with breast cancer will teach you many things. For one thing, although White women are more likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, Black women are more likely to die from it. Black women have a 4% lower incidence of breast cancer than their white counterparts, but they are 40% more likely to die from it.  But breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence. Black women are less likely to have access to quality health care which means they may struggle to get an early mammogram that could lead to early diagnosis and a less aggressive treatment and therapy that will lead to a better prognosis. Younger Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with a more aggressive form of breast cancer known as BRACA-2.

As a Black woman you will be more susceptible to fibroids. The high incidence of uterine fibroids can mean more profuse and painful menstrual periods. These fibroids often lead to problems of infertility.   Nearly a quarter of Black women between 18 and 30 have fibroids compared to about 6% of white women, according to some national estimates. By age 35, that number increases to 60%. Black women are also 2-to-3 times more likely to have recurring fibroids or suffer from complications. While issues of weight and diet may contribute to fibroids, it is important that you are not casually talked into surgical procedures that curtail your fertility or speed up menopause.

Finally, you will want to take care of more than your physical health. You need to care for your mental health. Women are twice as likely to experience a mental health episode like depression than men. Black women are only half as likely to seek help. You will need to challenge the vision of yourself as a “strong Black woman” who pushes her way through depression and anxiety. Seeking mental health care does not mean you are weak. There are some things you can do on your own in conjunction with seeking professional health. You can get good rest because getting at least seven hours of sleep can stabilize your mood. You will need to move more. Thirty minutes of exercise a day is enough to boost those feel-good endorphins. You should eat well (sounds like a theme, doesn’t it). A healthy mix of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein can keep your energy levels even and help you manage the ups and downs of daily life. Connect with others. You need to schedule time to meet with friends and loved ones to just focus on the relationships you have with them. Studies show that social connections can help improve your mental health. Know your limits. Even when you think you can do it all, it will be important for you to know when to say, no. You will learn the phrase “protect your peace” as you grow older. This is what knowing your limits is all about. Finally, find that place of spiritual well-being. Study after study shows that people who have an ongoing relationship with God are more likely to thrive and experience less mental stress. Your generation will learn the value of the phrase, “Let go and let God!”

I know it sounds like a lot, Gloria but your health is your wealth. And despite all the health issues you will need to attend to, you’re about to have a wonderful life. Enjoy it!  


Grown Up Gloria

P.S. Put those cigarettes down, too!