By Chris Bennett
Special to the NNPA from The Seattle Medium
Three days after being diagnosed with breast cancer on her 35th birthday Bridgette Hempstead, the mother of three daughters and a two-time breast cancer survivor, laid the foundation for a grassroots organization that has played an important role in educating, empowering and supporting African American women who have been diagnosed with cancer and cancer survivors.
Hempstead’s organization, Cierra Sisters, is dedicated to help break the cycle of fear and increase knowledge about breast cancer in the African American and underserved communities locally and nationwide.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers that occur in African American women, and ranks 2nd in all cancer-related deaths among African American women – who often receive a diagnosis in the late stages of the disease.
After her first diagnosis with cancer, Hempstead realized that there was a lack of information, education and resources targeting African American women as it relates to breast cancer and overnight she literally became one of the biggest advocates for women of color in the Seattle area.
“Right after my diagnosis I went on a very strong quest to start educating my friends, my family, and people in the community, and that was three days after my diagnosis before I even went in to have my initial surgery,” said Hempstead.
After her initial surgery and getting through that process, Hempstead’s doctors noticed her strength, courage and how she kept her fight with breast cancer into a proper perspective.
“My doctors were saying you’re really powerful, you’re not afraid, and you’re going through this head-on and they were saying that everybody doesn’t react like this and would you please start talking to the women,” recalled Hempstead.
According to Hempstead, the doctors started referring patients to her, and she began organizing the women to support each other through a buddy system.
“By the sixth month it was too many women coming to me, so we started to meet at [a local coffee house],” said Hempstead. “By that time I was so knowledgeable about the treatments, different options and how important it was to have a support it just started to develop into what Cierra Sisters is today.”
According to Hempstead, they choose the name Cierra because it is an African word that means knowing, and it also meant the color of brown – which represents the communities that they serve.
“I interpreted it as, if you have knowledge you have the power to fight against the effects of breast cancer,” said Hempstead.
Today, the organization, which operates on a very limited budget, has created awareness about the disease in underserved communities that, according to some cancer advocates, is unmatched by larger organizations with much larger budgets. The organization holds monthly meetings at the Rainier Beach Community Center, where they share information, help members create wellness plans, listen to guest speakers, and provide general and personal support for one another.
Despite being the public face of the organization as both the founder and president, Hempstead is not alone in her advocacy, and readily admits that the true strength of the organization lies within its members, who are dedicated to sharing their experiences and empowering others with the knowledge, strength and support to battle cancer. In addition to attending monthly meetings, members volunteer to help each other by driving other cancer patients to appointments, provide food, help clean the house of members who aren’t able to do so, and raising emergency funds for members when needed. They also provide information on restoring their finances after cancer, and end of life support for members and their families.
“You’d be surprised what can make a difference in somebody’s life,” said Hempstead. “It’s life-saving because the more support that you get and if you’re in a supportive community that’s going to embrace you your survival rate and your outcome will be so much better than someone who has no support.”
Valerie Dean, a member of Cierra Sisters who has been cancer free for 9 years, is grateful for the support that she received from the organization after she was diagnosed with cancer. According to Dean, the support that she received from the organization and its members played a significant role in helping her deal with her cancer and enjoy life after cancer.
Dean, like most people after initially being diagnosed with cancer, was afraid and “needed a lot of support.” In Cierra Sisters she found an organization that was full of love and support in more ways than she could imagine.
“Cancer affects the entire family, not just the one person,” says Dean. “It’s very expensive to have cancer and insurance does not cover everything.”
“This is a place where you can get genuine love and support,” she continued. “They are up on the latest and greatest cancer initiatives. They teach you how to eat, how to exercise and how to make your life better after cancer.”
According to Dean, the organization brought in a lot of experts to talk about a variety of issues at their monthly meetings. In addition, the members helped her ask the right questions of her doctors and to become mentally strong enough to overcome all aspects that people fighting cancer have to deal with.
“They recommended all the right doctors for me,” says Dean. “They recommended my gynecologist, my surgeon and my naturopath.”
While it may seem that the organization deals mainly with breast cancer patients and survivors, they are also very focused on education, prevention and early detection. Hempstead’s own story of survival is based on early detection and being very proactive with her doctor. She has also seen people die from cancer because they either were not diagnosed properly, early enough or in some cases were discouraged from being tested because they were younger than the age range that doctors general use to perform tests.
“My doctor didn’t even want to give me a mammogram because I was too young,” recalled Hempstead, who says that waiting until she reached the recommended time table for testing would have been a death sentence for her. “Since we know that some of the doctors are not as proactive as they should be, then you have to be proactive for yourself.”
Being diagnosed with cancer is not a death sentence, but Hempstead is quick to point out that people do die. However, she believes that living life is just as important as medication and treatment when it comes to dealing and overcoming cancer.
“I believe that when you’re diagnosed with any type of disease it’s almost an eye-opener that we are not immortal,” says Hempstead. “Some women in the past have been so afraid they don’t even want to go out and socialize anymore.”
“We want to be able to give these women the tools to go out and socialize,” she continued. “Go out and live your life and look at each day as an opportunity to make a difference in your own life and be able to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Two years ago Hempstead had a recurrence of her disease, but her knowledge and resilience helped her overcome the disease again and served as a reminder that the fight against cancer is not just a process, it is also a lifestyle.
“It’s important to make sure you have the proper minerals in your body. I take more vitamins than I due medication, I only have one medication that I take,” says Hempstead. “Cancer works best in a weak immune system. It’s very important make sure you are eating the right things because you don’t want to eat something that going to help to promote the growth of the cancer.”
The influence of Cierra Sisters stretches far beyond the Puget Sound Area, Hempstead says that she gets calls from people from other states and has even housed some women who have come to Seattle for treatment. They are currently working on establishing chapters/relationships as far away as Africa.
While the name implies that the organization only serves women, anyone, male or female, who has had any type of cancer, is a relative of someone with cancer or just wants to be an advocate/supporter is encouraged to join.
“I’ve lived by faith for a long time and put a lot of my own personal funds into Cierra Sisters,” says Hempstead. “When you have organizations like Cierra Sisters and other organizations that are doing this type of work, it’s not hard work, it’s heart work. Its something you do because you have a love for the people.”
“It’s about building the relationship so that someone is going to trust that you are going to give them the best information, and that you’re going to support them through their medical crisis,” she added. “We’re here to share that information and share it freely.”