Commentary: Nia Long Says We Must Make Our Health a Priority

The actress talks about Planned Parenthood's breast health program, the importance of health care reform and why she's fighting for women's rights.

Posted: 09/20/2012 04:45 PM EDT
Nia Long Says We Must Make Our Health a Priority

We all know someone — a family member, friend, colleague, classmate, neighbor — who has been affected by breast cancer. That includes me.

My cousin has breast cancer. She has been in remission twice and is on her third round of chemotherapy. She is 41 and married with two daughters — one is in college, one is 9-years-old — and it has been devastating for all of us who love her to see her cancer keep returning. But through it all, she has remained strong, determined and positive. My cousin is my hero. She will go to a chemo session, and then take her daughter to gymnastics class, and then cook dinner for her family. I don’t know if I could do that. Her priority is her health — and her family. As a mother, above all else, you want to be there for your children.

But I know my cousin is not alone in this fight. More than 230,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. And in women under age 45, breast cancer is more common in African-American women than white women — and African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer are more likely to die from the disease.

Unfortunately, the health challenges we face don’t stop there: African American women have higher rates of many preventable diseases — diabetes, heart disease and HIV/AIDS.

I am very concerned about what I see happening in our community — women and girls who don’t have access to the affordable, quality health care services they need. As a result, my community — our community — is literally dying.

We must make our health a priority. That’s why I was excited to hear that Planned Parenthood is expanding their breast health program. Providing information about breast health, breast cancer risks and symptoms and what women can do if they find something abnormal, is the first, critical step to educating women and erasing the fear that often keeps women, particularly those under age 40, from seeking treatment.

But, Planned Parenthood provides so much more than clinical breast exams. In fact, more than 90 percent of its services are preventive — cancer screenings, annual exams, birth control, and testing and treatment for STIs. Planned Parenthood also provides a safe place for young people to talk about sex, sexuality and their bodies — topics they may not feel comfortable talking about at home. It’s a place where teens don’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed, and can access information to make the right decisions down the road.

During the past year, I was disappointed and angry to see the relentless attacks on women’s health and numerous attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. I knew that I had to speak up about the need for access to affordable health care, not just in our community, but in all communities.

What our mothers and grandmothers fought so hard for could be taken away too easily, and I know how hard it has been to make these gains for women. For example, my mother was a public school teacher. She made so many sacrifices for me to have the life that I have today.  But when she retired, the cost of the health care options presented to her was astronomically high, and we had to investigate other options to ensure she was covered.

We need health care reform so women don’t have to struggle to find affordable care the way my mother did  I am shocked that some politicians want to roll back the gains afforded to women under health care reform and prevent  access to  critical health care providers like Planned Parenthood.

Both my mother and grandmother, who is in her 90s, firmly believe that a woman should have access to the health care she deserves, and should have the right to make her own health decisions, I couldn’t agree more. I refuse to allow those rights to be taken away — not on my watch.

Nia Long is an actor and health advocate.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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 (Photo: Mychal Watts/PictureGroup)

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