Health news is almost always depressing when it comes to people of color, especially our black men. Our husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and friends are at least 50 percent more likely to die of a heart attack, stroke, complications from diabetes and cancer than their white counterparts. These numbers represent real men, and it just may be the women who love them who will bring about real change.
For the past 26 years, I have been the captain of our family's health-care ship. My husband, Darnay, lovingly calls me his little Health Nazi. I prefer to think of myself as his health advocate. It helps that I am a health writer with access to tons of information and research. However, as the wife of a strong-willed black man, most days I find myself in the same boat as every other woman, with my work cut out for me.
Health discussions between women and the men they love can be a tug of war, as complicated as fights about finances or asking for directions. For many men used to being strong and in charge, going head on against medical fears is overwhelming.
It has taken three long years to convince my husband to pack sunscreen in his golf bag and actually put it on while he's out. He just didn't believe that black people could get skin cancer. My biggest on-going challenge now is getting him to give up cigarettes. I've tried everything from e-mailing articles on the links between smoking and heart disease, strokes and cancer to trying to shame him by hanging my head out the window when I ride in his smoky car. Sometimes I just start coughing until I pass out, but he doesn't get the hint.
As frustrating as it can be, I've accepted that I will have to do the heavy lifting. And, if we're going to break the trend of black men denying worrying symptoms until they are in the emergency room in the throes of a major medical crisis, there are a few things we women can do.
1. Speak Up When Something Seems Off—Women are often the first ones to notice when the man they love isn't feeling well, even if he isn't willing to admit it. Pay attention to what's going on with the men in your life, and don't be afraid to gently ask questions. When my gut tells me something is going on with my husband's health, I am usually right. I tell him I think he should go to the doctor, and then I make the appointment myself. Be careful not to make your concern for his well-being sound like negativity or criticism.
2. Don't Get Righteous—Jumping on your soapbox seldom works. One woman told me that after reading an article on the link between obesity, diabetes and junk food, she announced to her family that she was throwing out everything in the fridge and cupboards and was putting her husband and sons on a strict diet. The guys' response? "They shot me down with a quickness," she said. Instead of fixing and saving your man, work together on a health plan that you can both live with. I've learned that my preaching doesn't work. Now, I routinely send my husband and other friends and relatives articles on heart disease, smoking and other health concerns, so they can learn and process the health information themselves.
3. Quietly Flip the Script—If you want to change the way he eats, load your grocery cart with fresh, healthy foods. Experiment with cooking lower-fat, lower-sodium versions of the meals he loves. Keep water on hand as an alternative to sodas and other sugar-laden drinks. If he won't go to the doctor, ask him to go with you to your family doctor appointment. And before you start harping on him to take his meds, try setting them out in a visible place, along with yours, the night before.
4. Pick Your Shots—Good health isn't built in a day. If your man is a couch potato who drinks, smokes and always finds a reason not to visit the doctor, don't attack him on all fronts. Work with him to tackle one thing at a time.
5. Lead by Example—Black women also carry a disproportionate health burden of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes and some cancers. We find the energy to care for loved ones, at the expense of nurturing our own health and well-being. Show him how to lead a healthy life by exercising, eating right, reducing your own stress levels and staying up to date on your medical screenings and physicals.
We are—like it or not—often our brothers', husbands', lovers', fathers' and friends' keepers. When the going gets rough, and it will, we have to keep going because we love them.
Andrea King Collier is the co-author of the "Black Woman's Guide to Black Men's Health" (Warner Wellness, 2007) and a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow.
is a journalist who writes about health, health policy and food justice. She is a Food and Society Policy Fellow.