Cierra Sisters: Breaking the cycle of breast cancer health disparities

Cierra Sisters: Breaking the cycle of breast cancer health disparities

Cierra Sisters founder Bridgette Hempstead

[5 min read]

In this article: 

  • Cierra Sisters is a Puget Sound-based grassroots organization dedicated to educating Black and African American women who have breast cancer. 
  • Swedish's partnership with Cierra Sisters is almost three decades old. 
  • The organization provides a support for patients learning to advocate for themselves, talk about cancer and navigate the complexities of the healthcare system. 

 

“Black women don’t get breast cancer.”

Bridgette Hempstead was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. It was her 35th birthday. The news came after Hempstead reported her symptoms to a doctor who told her that she didn’t need to get a mammogram. Black women didn’t get breast cancer, the physician assured her. Hempstead, a mother of three daughters and a grandmother of four, was in disbelief at hearing such misinformation propagated with her diagnosis. That same doctor would eventually call Richardson to apologize and explain that during her medical education, students were taught that Black women could not get breast cancer.

That experience—along with Hempstead’s passion and leadership—launched Cierra Sisters, a Puget Sound area-based grassroots organization dedicated to educating and empowering Black and African American women who have breast cancer or are breast cancer survivors, and patients with other types of cancer.

Cierra Sisters is born

To honor and recognize the community they serve, Cierra Sisters’ name is rooted in African origins. “Cierra” means “knowing” and is meant to serve as a reminder that knowledge is power. Cierra Sisters’ mission is breaking the enduring—and too often deadly—cycle of fear and distrust of the health care system. Central to this work is encouraging education and knowledge around cancer in the Black and African American community. In addition to community events, Cierra Sisters holds monthly support meetings (currently on Zoom) to provide patients with a supportive space to talk about cancer as well and learn how to advocate for themselves, talk with clinicians and navigate what seems at times to be an impossibly complex health care system.

“[Immediately after my diagnosis] I knew that Cierra Sisters was going to be. It was going to be very important for me to help educate Black women in my community because they are told the same story I was told,” she says. “The Monday following my birthday I got on the phone, and I called everyone I knew to tell them that I had done my research to find out what’s really going on.”

“Through those conversations I talked to women who were afraid that getting a mammogram was going to give them breast cancer. Black women were afraid to get a mammogram because they believed it's the mammography machine that's giving them breast cancer,” she affirms. “I knew I had to develop an evidence-based educational program for my sisters in the community.”

Hempstead received treatment at Swedish, going through surgery and radiation at Swedish’s True Family Women’s Cancer Center. The late Patricia Dawson, M.D., her surgeon, soon became a mentor and friend. The friendship birthed the ongoing partnership between Swedish and Cierra Sisters.

“Dr. Dawson was one of the people spearheading the True Center at Swedish at the time,” says Richardson. “She and some other doctors came to me and asked how they could support Cierra Sisters.”

Cierra Sisters helped launch the effort to raise funding for the first Swedish mobile mammography unit. 

Three decades of partnership with Swedish

Cierra Sisters’ relationship with Swedish is now almost three decades old. In 2022, Swedish began funding the organization through our community investment program. Swedish and Cierra Sisters have joined forces in bringing health fairs and clinics to local community centers, cancer experts to speak at local events and mobile mammography services to Seattle’s underserved neighborhoods. In fact, it was Cierra Sisters’ urgency that brought mobile mammography services to Swedish; after Bridgette saw a news item about a mobile mammography vehicle in Spokane, she launched into action with Swedish, which helped raise funding for the hospital’s very first mobile mammography unit.  

“These events and our work with Cierra Sisters give us an opportunity to understand how much mistrust there is of health care organizations in the African American community,” says Barbara Kollar, director of oncology at Swedish. “It’s clear that this is not something we are going to correct overnight. It’s going to take years; and a piece of that is Swedish being a trustworthy partner in promoting their mission to really help provide knowledge and accurate information in the African American community.”

The partnership with Swedish has been fruitful and important to Cierra Sisters’ growth, agrees Bridgette.

“As an organization we want to make sure Black women’s voices are heard and [that patients with cancer] have a partnership with their doctors and oncologists,” says Bridgette. “This is a team effort. We have to come together to be able to make a difference.”

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Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about mammograms and your options for breast cancer treatments, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Cancer Prevention Resource Roundup

At Swedish, a visionary initiative to advance the early detection of cancer

Oncoplastic breast-conserving surgery method expands cancer treatment options

“Health equity starts with honoring the humanity in everyone you meet.” (swedish.org)

 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

 

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