Combating breast cancer health disparities with education, support

'Knowledge, empowerment — that's what we do': Breast cancer patient Bridgette Hempstead shares her inspiring Cierra Sisters story
Sandra Evans and Bridgette Hempstead share their breast cancer stories and discuss how education has empowered them — and their community. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

This October, as we focus on breast cancer awareness, we’re also thinking about those who work tirelessly to level the health care playing field for everyone.

Cancers often hit underserved populations the hardest. These people don’t suffer and die solely because of a cancer diagnosis, but because they also lack money or health insurance or access to good care. They may live in medical deserts or lack the ability to speak English. They may be mired in misinformation or cultural or racial bias. Some may be mistrustful or fearful of white coats — or the white people who so often wear them. Others may wrongly believe all cancers are terminal so don't even bother going to a doctor when they encounter a lump or other symptom. 

As a result, people of color and other underserved groups don’t get screened as often, so their cancers are detected at later stages, when they’re more difficult to treat. They don’t know about or participate in clinical trials so aren’t able to benefit from new protocols or cutting-edge therapies. Even genetics can play a role in health disparities. Many African-American women are more prone to aggressive, hard-to-treat breast cancers. As a result, black women are nearly 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.

When Bridgette Hempstead of Seattle was diagnosed with breast cancer after struggling to even get a mammogram, she decided to use her experience as a springboard to help others. She founded Cierra Sisters, an African-American cancer support group that for the past 20 years has provided much-needed education and support to Seattle’s most vulnerable communities. These days, Hempstead regularly teams with Fred Hutch researchers to bring health fairs, free cancer screenings, nutritional guidance, and crucial health messages to those who need them the most, empowering the underserved to lead richer, healthier and yes, longer, lives.

Here, she and Cierra Sister Sandra Evans talk about their experiences as patients of color and how they’ve used those experiences to better inform fellow cancer patients, oncologists, and researchers.

Over the years, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has helped many who’ve been diagnosed with this disease feel much less alone through colorful camaraderie and pink ribbon fundraisers. We hope that awareness — and the change it can inspire — continues to grow, especially for those who’ve experienced a far less rosy picture.

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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