by Chamidae Ford
Bridgette Hempstead, the founder of Cierra Sisters, received her breast cancer diagnosis on her 35th birthday. A diagnosis she had to fight tooth and nail to get.
When Hempstead went to the doctor intending to get a mammogram, her doctor urged her not to — not just because she was young, but because she was Black.
“[My doctor] started down a laundry list of reasons why I should not get a mammogram. And her last reason for me not to get a mammogram was that I was a Black woman and breast cancer didn’t happen in the Black community,” Hempstead said.
Racism is an issue throughout the medical field, but the statistics concerning breast cancer are alarming. Black women diagnosed with breast cancer have a 42% higher mortality rate than white women with breast cancer.
And while Hempstead was told a mammogram was unnecessary, she insisted. With that mammogram, she also received a diagnosis. But rather than viewing it as a death sentence, Hempstead viewed it as knowledge. That knowledge gave her the ability to fight for her life.
For the last 25 years, Hempstead has continued her work to encourage and inform her community with Cierra Sisters, its name, meaning knowledge, is rooted in African traditions. Cierra Sisters is an organization dedicated to providing community and advocating for Black people to take charge of their health.
“[Black women] get diagnosed with breast cancer, and then they would die. So the inequity was there. I saw that, and I knew immediately that I needed to make aware and alert my community about breast cancer in the Black community,” Hempstead said.
On Feb. 6, Cierra Sisters hosted their annual World Cancer Day event, this time virtually.
The event included lectures and discussions, and opened with a presentation on racism within the medical field. Dr. Rachel Issaka went through the alarming statistics that the Black community faces when fighting cancer, explaining how societal structures such as redlining, lack of health care, generation wealth, and racist care impact the diagnosis and treatment of Black cancer patients.
Issaka noted that not only are “Black people twice as likely to not have health insurance,” but Black people are “less likely to be advised by their primary care provider or their health care team to get that screening test.”
These barriers within the medical industry all contribute to the fact that Black women with breast cancer have a significantly higher mortality rate.
The lecture was followed by a discussion with cancer survivors. They recounted their experience with receiving their diagnosis, advocating for their health, and what their lives have been like since remission.
All the survivors emphasized the importance of advocating for yourself. In a system that is not set up for Black people, it is essential to listen to your own body and fight for the care you deserve.
Crystal Cherry, a breast cancer survivor, shared many stories of her doctors ignoring her requests in the treatment she received. She emphasized that you must put yourself and your health first.
“You ask for whatever you feel like you need to ask for,” Cherry said.
As part of advocating for yourself, it’s beneficial to create a support system that will also listen when you can’t, fight for you when you can’t fight for yourself, and encourage you when you feel all is lost.
“It’s important to have a good nucleus of support team around you. So that way you’re not out there walking and then stepping on a land mine and it blows up in your face. So it’s better to have a mountain of information. Knowledge is power, and it’s powerful enough to keep you alive,” Hempstead said.
A continuous theme throughout the event was resisting the fear that comes with a diagnosis.
“There’s a lot of fear surrounding doctors and diagnosis and I fought through some of that fear myself,” said cancer survivor Margie Willis.
Ultimately getting a diagnosis opens the door to the ability to fight cancer. Ignoring the problem only exacerbates it.
“It’s a tough journey. However, I am still here,” Cherry said. “Getting that diagnosis allowed me to get the treatment and I am still here today.”
The final section of the event was focused on lectures from doctors in Seattle who specialize in colorectal and endometrial cancer. The forum featured lectures by Dr. Andrew Coveler and Dr. Julie Gralow from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance as well as Dr. Kemi Doll from the University of Washington.
Each speaker spent time explaining how to look for signs of different cancers such as colorectal and endometrial. They then explained what a diagnosis would be like and the types of treatments and statistics related to each cancer.
The concluding remarks centered around the fact that people are putting off their cancer screenings because of COVID-19. Because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19, many are delaying their cancer screenings, which ultimately pushes a diagnosis into the future while their cancer grows and spreads.
“Don’t let the COVID pandemic scare you to death because of a late-stage diagnosis of cancer,” Hempstead said.
Hempstead also emphasized that there are extra precautions you can take to protect yourself from COVID while still prioritizing other aspects of your health:
“Take action; be proactive. If there is a serious issue like cancer that is there, let’s make sure that it’s diagnosed early, let’s make sure that you can get the best treatment possible.”.
The event will be made available to watch on Cierra Sisters’ website later this week.
Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.
Featured Image: Cierra Sisters founder, Bridgette Hempstead, at an October community event in the Skyway neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Cierra Sisters.)
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