Cierra Sisters’ Conference encourages life-saving conversations about cancer

by Anne Althauser

We have to talk to our families about cancer.

Cancer. No one wants to talk about it, but after attending the Cierra Sisters’ Families Coming Together Conference last Saturday, October 8, I left convinced that we must start breaking through our silent fears to have what might be life-saving conversations.

Cierra Sisters is an African American breast cancer survivor and support organization based out of South Seattle that has a mission of breaking the cycle of fear around cancer and increasing knowledge concerning breast cancer in African American communities. Every 1-2 years, Cierra Sisters holds a free, one-day educational conference to talk about the latest advances in cancer prevention and treatment, and continue to open the conversation throughout the South Seattle community.

The goal of this year’s conference was to reiterate the importance of talking about cancer within our families, friends, and community. The more we talk about cancer, the less fear we will all have of getting screened and asking for support where we need it.

I went to the Families Coming Together Conference to hear the lineup of speakers Cierra Sisters’ founder, Ms. Bridgette Hempstead,* brought together to talk at this event. As a public health columnist for the Emerald, I was interested in this conference for two reasons. First, because I’m a white woman and most of the information I read about cancer comes from white communities, which sends red flags up for me. Second, two of my close family members have had cancer now and I understand firsthand the real fear that comes along with cancer.

While the Rainier Valley Community Center was filled for this one-day event, the mood was relaxed and open—an encouraging space to ask questions and get facts straight.

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Conference organizers prepare prizes! Photo courtesy Bridgette Hempstead.

Ms. Hempstead  started us off talking about the stigma of cancer and reassuring us we’re in a community more about being supported throughout having cancer and knowing that you’re not alone in the battle. Cancer is not a curse.  Many people don’t know if cancer runs in their families because it’s ‘hush-hush,’ so we have to start talking about these things—really sharing about our family history of cancer. This is not something to be ashamed about, Ms. Bridgette stressed, for sharing can be life saving.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Kimlin Tam Ashing, started the lecture series by teaching us that African Americans have the highest proportion of cancer incidence to mortality of any racial or ethnic group. For example, if you have cancer as an African American person living in L.A. County, you have a 71% greater chance of dying within five years than white people living in the same county. There’s always a 15% lag in survival outcomes of African Americans than white folks, even with medical advances. Dr. Ashing emphasized the importance of talking to policy makers about this inexcusable disparity.

Beyond pointing out these staggering numbers, Dr. Ashing put them in systemic and structural contexts to demonstrate how many factors play into cancer incidences. For example, Dr. Ashing talked about the generational stress and trauma passed down from slavery and how the stress of society today remains heavy on those most impacted by a racist society. The need to advocate for equitable research and treatment rang loud and clear.

Dr. Ashing further emphasized that cancer is asymptomatic, therefore early prevention and detection is key. Screening for cancer is not some kind of test of God; doctors will not find cancer that does not exist. And in fact, cancer is highly curable—especially when found at inception. This is where conquering that fear of cancer is crucial—in learning to prevent and detect it.

Following Dr. Ashing, Dr. Andrew Coveler walked us through what we need to know about colon cancer, focusing on screening methods and timelines. For someone with no family history of colon cancer, screening should start between 45-50 years old, either via a once a year stool-based test, or a colonoscopy every 10 years. The importance here is on getting the screening done, and less about the kind of screening. For someone with a family history of colon cancer, they will need to start screening about 10 years early; therefore it is critical to talk to our families about our cancer history. If you have any history of cancer in your family at all, do bring this up with your doctors.

While many environmental factors that are associated with cancer are out of our control (think pollution, BPAs, asbestos), there are still activities within our charge. The biggest risk factors that contribute to colon cancer include a lack of physical activity, eating red meat in excess, being overweight, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. Luckily, the more we exercise (at least 30 minutes of moderate walking a day), eat fruits and vegetables, take multivitamins, and decrease smoking and alcohol consumption, the better our colons will be.

After Dr. Coveler, Shauna Weatherby, a nurse, talked next about Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. She taught us that Women of Color have higher incidence of cervical cancer, arguing that screening protocols should be altered to address this disparity: instead of getting screened every three years, Shauna recommends getting screened yearly as a woman, so that even the smallest change can be detected from the start. Luckily, the HPV vaccine is now widely accessible, so youth starting at the age of 9 should get vaccinated.

While there has even been a stigma with the HPV vaccination, with people saying that vaccinations will only encourage sexual intercourse at a young age—there is no evidence to prove this. As Shauna said, “does telling young people to wear bicycle helmets and seatbelts encourage bicyclers to drive recklessly?”

After a nourishing social lunch complete with graceful dancers for entertainment, we heard from a panel of people who had first-hand experience battling cancer. Hearing from each one of these three individuals really helped humanize the cancer experience and combat the fear of going to the doctor. They were all honest about how hard cancer treatment was on their bodies, but that being in support groups and having friends and family to talk to kept them strong throughout and after treatment. Putting a plug in for Cierra Sisters, they warned that most of the information found on the internet about cancer is about white people, so having a community resource focused on People of Color was incomparable.

Lastly, Julie Gralow continued the day talking about using personalized medicine to improve breast cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment and Nora Disis ended our series of speakers by talking about how our immune systems attack cancer. We humans are incredibly resilient and it is a miracle we have the body power to fight cancer. Luckily, where cancer does try to become more powerful, modern medicine has the tools and resources to help us win. Cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was.

Julie Gralow speaking at Cierra Sisters Conference. Photo courtesy Bridgette Hempstead

Having no prior family experience with cancer, I couldn’t have prepared for the day I found out my mom had breast cancer three years ago. There were no signs, no suspicions, and no warnings. The first thing on all our minds was, “what did we do wrong?” What we don’t hear enough about cancer is this: when you get cancer, it’s not your fault.

As a family we really never talked about cancer before, so we, like most families who go through this for the first time, had to learn how to navigate this cancer world and hope for the best together. Thankfully my mother is 100% recovered, and with an army-sized family as a support system, my grandmother doesn’t have to battle lung cancer alone now. 

We truly have a responsibility to talk to our family and friends about the risks of cancer and what we can do to prevent it. Even though we may be currently healthy and doing all the ‘right things’ in our power—we can never fully predict if and when cancer may develop, as cancer does not discriminate. Our power resides in our knowledge of prevention and what we CAN do.  Luckily, organizations like Cierra Sisters are here to help us through this process, starting with crucial conversations with our families and friends about cancer.

 *Bridgette Hempstead is the Vice President of the Board for South Seattle Emerald