Health disparities in breast cancer and beyond

A Q & A with Dr. Beti Thompson and patient advocate Bridgette Hempstead about the science of equity and how to empower the underserved
Fred Hutch writer Diane Mapes chats with public health researcher Dr. Beti Thompson and patient advocate Bridgette Hempstead about health disparities. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Public health research has long shown that cancer and other diseases tend to hit minorities and other underserved groups harder, mostly because of socioeconomic challenges, lack of insurance, reduced access to care and other addressable issues.

Fred Hutch’s Health Disparities Research Center, led by Dr. Beti Thompson, works to pare down those disparities through embedded research programs like the longstanding Center for Community Health Promotion in lower Yakima Valley and research partnerships with Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, rural residents and other vulnerable populations.

“It’s very important to serve the underserved,” said Thompson. “They are at higher risk for, if not getting cancer, dying from cancer. It’s our goal to try to make life better for them.”

Toward that end, the HDRC every year runs a grant-training program that brings representatives from advocacy organizations to the Hutch campus to teach them about the public health research process and mentor them through the creation of pilot projects designed to level the playing field for these traditional "health have-nots."

The African American cancer support group, Cierra Sisters, is one such organization. Founded by breast cancer patient Bridgette Hempstead, Cierra Sisters has for many years worked to educate and empower the black community regarding health issues, including cancer screening and treatment.

In this video by Fred Hutch senior multimedia editor Robert Hood, public health writer Diane Mapes interviews Thompson and Hempstead about who, exactly, is affected by health disparities; the myths and misinformation that help to perpetuate them; the breast cancer mortality gap between white and black women; emerging research in the field and a few of Fred Hutch’s community outreach programs and teaching tools such as CASPER, the giant inflatable colon. 

CASPER, the inflatable colon
Frankie Rentas and Kathy Briant, with Fred Hutch's Health Disparities Research Center, set up CASPER, the inflatable colon, before a Cierra Sisters health fair in Rainier Valley. HDRC uses the walk-through inflatable colon to teach people about colon cancer detection and prevention. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.

Robert Hood, senior multimedia editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, is a longtime photojournalist who grew up in newspapers and most recently worked at NBC News Digital and, directing multimedia operations. Reach him at

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