Breast cancer patient, Fred Hutch scientists working to reduce deaths in black women

VIDEO: Breast cancer in black women

SEATTLE — Breast cancer is killing black women at a rate far greater than it does white women. One reason may be that the 'Big C' can be seen as a death sentence to many African-Americans. And women may be waiting too long to seek treatment.

"So, having your daughter was a great comfort?" Bridgette Hempstead was asked.

"It was a comfort," she said. "It was very empowering. And she was a great support."

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Hempstead was a young mother the first time she got the devastating news. Her daughter was just a teenager.

"I was 35 years old," Hempstead said. "It was on my birthday. And I was diagnosed with breast cancer."

She survived. But 18 years later, the cancer returned. And this time, it had spread to her liver and her lungs.

"The doctor told me that, You know, You're not going to live,' I heard a year; Deedee heard two," she said, looking at her daughter. "And then the doctor said that I would never sing again."

"What was your thought?" she was asked.

"My thought was, 'You know what? If I'm going to leave, I'm going to leave with a bang.'"

"Once we heard the diagnosis and we cried together and she called me about three days later," said DeeDee Shirkey. "And she said, 'I'm not ready to die so I'm just not gonna.' And I said 'OK.' And we went on vacation."

Hempstead found her way back to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"Because this is where the cures start," she said, walking down the hallway.

But so far, those cures have largely eluded black women with breast cancer.

"Mortality rates are higher in black women than white women," said Dr. Nancy Davidson, executive director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.  "And that's a real travesty."

It prompted Davidson to co-author a November Op Ed piece in the Seattle Times. Davidson said she and her co-author wanted to bring awareness to the fact that breast cancer is not just a white woman's disease.

"Actually lots of women get breast cancer," Davidson said. "And so we wanted to make sure that everybody knows that everybody's prone, that everybody knows that advances have been made. And to make sure that everything we know about breast cancer - the fruits of our labor, if you will - can be enjoyed by all women whether they're black or white or Asian or Hispanic, Latina.

"Too often there is this bias or this thought that, 'Ah, if I get cancer, there's nothing that can be done about it,'" she said. "And nothing could be farther from the truth."

Based on her own experience, Bridgette Hempstead started a support group for black women with breast cancer. The 'Cierra Sisters' was born. The members meet at the Rainier Beach Community Center, the fourth Thursdays of most months. And you don't have to have breast cancer to join.

"You have cancer but you have your hair?" Hempstead was asked.

"I have my hair," Hempstead said. "And the stigma that I would like to share with our community is that cancer doesn't look like bald women, sick people that (have hair) falling out."

She says she's "a lifer" -- a cancer survivor who will have to be treated for the rest of her life. But nine months after she was given just one year to live, she defied the initial prognosis that she would never sing again.

"I was invited to sing the National Anthem at the Seahawks - Cowboys game," she said, "and I sang that with ease. If black women are not living, let's find out why and let's make that change."

It's a change that could well add years to all female lives.