By Megan Sayles
In the United States, 26 million women aged 15 to 50 have uterine fibroids, or benign growths of the uterus, and more than half of those women will experience associated symptoms and health risks.
For African American women, the lifetime incidence of fibroids is even higher. They tend to have fibroids diagnosed at earlier ages, and they are more likely to present symptoms.
African American women also have higher rates of hospitalizations due to their fibroids, as well as higher rates of myomectomies and hysterectomies, compared to their White counterparts.
July officially marks the beginning of Fibroid Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the under-discussed condition and the challenges it causes and inform women about treatment options they may be incognizant of.
In women, fibroids can vary in size, location, and symptoms. According to Dr. Brianna Walton, urogynecologist and medical director for female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at UM Capital Region Health, a majority of African American women don’t even know they have them.
The most common symptoms associated with uterine fibroids include heavy bleeding, pelvic pain, painful sex, constipation and bladder issues. Fibroids may also cause challenges to conception and pregnancy.
Race is one of the main risk factors for uterine fibroids, as Black women have fibroids at higher rates than their counterparts. They are more likely to have larger fibroids, as well as more severe symptoms.
Aside from being a woman of reproductive age, other risk factors for fibroids include obesity, family history of uterine fibroids, vitamin D deficiency and high blood pressure.
Active surveillance is crucial to ensuring uterine fibroids are properly managed and treated, according to Walton. Women can also eat a plant-based diet and control their weight to protect themselves from fibroids.
In recent years, more minimally invasive procedures have been developed to treat uterine fibroids. Dr. O. Lawrence Stitt, medical director of minimally invasive gynecological surgery at UM Capital Region Health, said in the past, that a hysterectomy was the recommended treatment for fibroids.
Now, surgeons like Dr. Stitt can treat fibroids without removing or disturbing the uterus so women can still have children.
In March, Stitt became the first doctor in Prince George’s County to perform a laparoscopic uterine fibroid ablation. During the procedure, surgeons insert a small needle through the skin and into the fibroid and apply heat to shrink it.
For 30 to 60 days, the fibroid will continue to diminish in size and ultimately drastically decrease the symptoms women were suffering from.
If women do not want a fibroid ablation, they also have the option of receiving a robotic-assisted laparoscopic myomectomy. For that procedure, doctors use the da Vinci surgical system for increased visualization to remove fibroids.
Patients experience minimal blood loss, they are allowed to go home the same day and they fully recover in seven to 10 days.
In July, UM Capital Region Health will open its new Fibroid and Pelvic Pain Center, and Stitt will serve as its medical director.
The health care provider decided to open the center after discovering that a majority of women had to drive outside of Prince George’s County to see uterine fibroid specialists.
The center was created to treat patients who are currently suffering from fibroids, evaluate family members of patients suffering from fibroids and assess patients who experience pelvic pain, which could be due to endometriosis.
Aside from uterine fibroid specialists and minimally-invasive treatments, the center will also have a nutritionist to help women develop a diet to manage their fibroids and radiologists to perform procedures for patients who are not appropriate candidates for surgery.
“My immediate goal is to provide education to the community. My feeling is that giving information to patients and empowering patients to make a decision that improves their health allows them to also share with family members, and overall, affect not just that person but the entire family and thus spread out to the entire community,” said Stitt. “Fibroid awareness is our number one goal.”