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Memphis woman says years of chemical hair straighteners impacted her health

“They found that there was about a two-fold increase in uterine cancer in women who used hair-straightening products more frequently,” said Dr. Philip Lammers.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Hair has become a billion-dollar industry. As more products are released, researchers are finding their effects may not be so good for your health.

The price of beauty is defined by the beholder. 

“I lived with the pain so long with the fibroids,” said Tresa Cunningham, Grow and Glow Products founder.

For Cunningham, a special hair technician, beauty came at a high cost.

“When I got my relaxer at the age of 18, I was petrified,” said Cunningham. “I always knew that the relaxer chemical is terrible. Nobody is going to put a relaxer on without gloves. I have to wear gloves no because I don’t want it all on my hands but because it hurts. It burns.” People still use it.

After decades of using a relaxer, not only did Cunningham see a difference in her hair but also her health. “I had a terrible bout with fibroid tumors,” said Cunningham.

Fibroid tumors grow in the walls of the uterus. “They couldn't believe it. One doctor said that he had never had to call the cancer doctor in to make sure it wasn’t cancerous,” said Cunningham. “I had tumors the size of a small watermelon collectively. They were touching on every organ.”

Cunningham got the tumors removed along with her uterus. “I know it runs in my family, but I felt like me doing hair and messing around with the chemicals for so long and then on top of that having a relaxer, it just made my situation even worse,” said Cunningham.

“There are different chemicals that are part of those products in particular the straightening product. Some of them affect hormone levels in women,” said Philip Lammers, Baptist Medical Group Medical Oncology Chief.

He has been following a recent study funded by the National Institute of Health. “They found that there was about a two-fold increase in uterine cancer in women who used hair-straightening products more frequently than women who did no,” said Dr. Lammers. “They define that as women who used it at least four times a year in that study.”

Uterine cancer starts in the uterus. More than 50,000 women were part of the study for an extended period of time with 60% of those who used straighteners identified as Black. “We’ve seen that Black women have increased uterine cancer rates over the last 20 years,” said Dr. Lammers. “Any sort of chemical or any sort of things that we put on our skin or in our hair can be absorbed into our bodies much like the food we eat...”

That is why Cunningham turned to natural hair products that she makes from herbs. “I didn’t see relief from hair issues until I let go of the relaxer,” said Cunningham. “I hear the term Black Girl Magic all the time, but it’s not Black girl magic if you’re putting stuff on your head and adding. I woke up like this. No, you didn’t wake up like this…We really need to think more seriously about our health. Don’t let convenience and vanity cost you your life.” It is a price no one should have to pay.

Cunningham said relaxers can take years to grow out and were only supposed to be used roughly once a year. Many women, particularly Black women, use them almost every four to six weeks. Dr. Lammers said pay close attention to product ingredients and beware of chemicals.

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