by Bridgette Hempstead
For the last 19 years of my life, I’ve heard those two words more than any other. They greet me after someone’s just shared their diagnosis of cancer with me, and the uncertain future that awaits them.
On this day, they’re spoken by a friend’s sister who reaches me over the phone. Her life has just been turned on its head. She’s not sure of her options, what to do, who to speak with, how this could have been detected earlier.
She’s mad at life, at the lord, at the situation.
And as we break down over the phone and cry together, her plight isn’t one I just sympathize with. Her plight was once my own.
To be a woman of color stricken with breast cancer and shell shocked by the announcement is a life I lived. It is one of loneliest feelings life can hand you.
One moment you’re cruising along on the road of life, and from out of nowhere everything comes to an abrupt halt.
The very real possibility that you may one day lose your life, lose your womanhood, opens up a sea of negativity to flood inside you.
Like her, no one had ever prepared me for the very real dangers women (especially those of color) face when it comes to a cancer diagnosis.
As a Black Woman I was never told that cancer, next to heart disease, is the leading cause of death for us. I was never told that our death rates from cancer are higher than any other race. Quite frankly, I was never told that cancer was something I needed to seriously fear, in fact, just weeks prior to being diagnosed my doctor told me I didn’t even need to be screened.
I was never told that there was support and education, because unfortunately, there wasn’t any – at least not in the South End of Seattle where I lived.
It has been a long known and realized fact that disparities in the deaths of African American women persist because of lack of health coverage, care and low socioeconomic status.
Those facts play out on the ground here in our own South End, where there are absolutely no medical centers in the West Hill area, and only one neighborhood care clinic located in Rainier Beach for the entirety of the Rainier Valley, and one neighborhood care clinic in Georgetown.
Studies have long shown that low socioeconomic status translates directly to access to health insurance, and living conditions — including conditions where exposure to environmental toxins is most common — all of which are associated with the risk of developing and surviving cancer.
It is absolutely absurd that in the city’s poorest area, by median income, we have so few resources, and then shrug our shoulders when the health outcomes are what they are so often for those in this area.
This is why I founded the group Cierra Sisters, for those who were struggling with cancer, and who doctors had cast out of their offices with nothing more than a life altering diagnosis and a “have a good life.” Turning them loose to uncertainty because these women and men had neither the insurance or the private fortune necessary to cover their treatments and surgeries.
If medical care didn’t want to come to us in the South End, we would go to it. Cierra Sisters soon partnered with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to provide our members with top quality care.
But it isn’t enough, quite frankly. Because I do not accept that we should continually have to travel to find care, just because that provided us in our neighborhoods is inadequate.
This is why in the last year we’ve seen “Mammavan” from Fred Hutch visit the South End to give free screenings to anyone willing. We’ve seen Health Expos lead by residents of the South End and held at Rainier Beach, Columbia City and Hillman City.
South End residents take things into their hands, like no other place in the city. And so it’s been no different with our health.
This trend continues with the Cierra Sisters ambassador program. The program consists of residents from the South End area who have been trained to talk directly with people in the community about the importance of screenings for cancer, especially as we get older. With all the misinformation about cancer screenings (just this past month the American Cancer Association changed their mammogram recommendations), it can be challenging to know exactly where you stand.
It can be even more challenging when language and ethnicity is a barrier, which is why we’re attempting to pull our ambassadors from everywhere in our great subsection of the city.
I’ve walked this path with so many of my sisters and my brothers who have had cancer. I’ve cried with them, I’ve cared for them, I’ve buried some, I’ve rejoiced with others when their cancer had receded, I’ve loved them. And I’ve always told them, like I told my friend’s sister on the phone that night: you don’t have to be scared, because you have an entire community behind you.
For the first time in a long time, we in the South End can be certain of that.
Cierra Sisters will be hosting a health fair this Saturday from 10am-2pm at the Cynthia A Green Family Center at 12704 76th Avenue South Seattle 98178. The fair will include a public health insurance enrollment workshop, free flue shoots, diabetes testing and blood pressure screenings. For more information you can email Bridgette at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridgette Hempstead is the founder of Cierra Sisters, a South End based cancer support group. She is also a South Seattle Emerald board member.