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Penny LeGate on Navigating Cancer and Advocating for Equity in Health Care

“As a person of privilege, I will continue to fight for equity in health care as a social justice issue.”

October 21, 2016

My phone buzzes. It’s a text: “Got some info on your path. Call me before your appointment.”

“Mastectomy. Chemo. Reconstruction. Radiation. The process of navigating breast cancer is overwhelming ― even for me ― a reporter who spent years doing extensive research and asking lots of questions,” writes LeGate. I know immediately that the message ― from a good friend who is an oncologist ― could only mean one thing: I have cancer. The day before I had undergone a biopsy on a lump in my left breast. A lump another practitioner had assumed was benign. Not satisfied with that answer, I had called my doctor friend, Dr. Julie Gralow, who insisted on an immediate biopsy. Now the pathology (path) report is in. And it does indeed show that the lump is cancerous.   

Cancer.

That word has a way of making everything in your life come to a screeching halt. While this news certainly isn’t what I want to hear, I really feel more annoyed than fearful. The real fear is on my husband’s face. We’ve only been married a month. Over the next few days my concern grows when we learn I have an aggressive form of breast cancer. The tumor is also very large, five centimeters. But there’s good news. My type of cancer, HER2+, responds well to treatment.

Now comes what would turn out to be the biggest challenge ― finding my “team.” Most breast cancer patients will need an oncologist, a surgeon, perhaps a radiation oncologist, plastic surgeon, physical therapist and nutritionist. Some, like me, have the luxury of also seeing an acupuncturist and naturopath. If you’re going to deal with cancer, Seattle is a good place to be.   

Mastectomy. Chemo. Reconstruction. Radiation. The process of navigating breast cancer is overwhelming ― even for me ― a reporter who spent years doing extensive research and asking lots of questions. Thank goodness for my wonderful, supportive husband, who sits in on every meeting and takes copious notes. (Believe me, try as she might, the patient won’t hear a thing. Except breast removal. Side Effects. Hair loss. Fatigue. You get the drift). Advice pours in from well-meaning friends, and while their recommendations are welcome, information overload can make your head spin. The key is to take control of your own health. Read. Interview. Listen. Ask questions. Evaluate. Then, choose the team that is not only experienced, but in whom you trust. And don’t look back.   

Bridgette Hempstead, founder of Seattle’s Cierra Sisters.

But what of the underserved women who have no financial resources, no vast network of loving friends, no health insurance? What becomes of them? What choices do they have? Years before I became a patient, I met Bridgette Hempstead, founder of Seattle’s Cierra Sisters. Her nonprofit organization assists women of color who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Bridgette explains that in her experience, she’s seen racism create a huge disparity in treatment.

When black women are diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, they are told to go home and take care of their affairs. White women are told, ‘We will fight this disease with everything we have.’

Two decades ago, when Bridgette was 34, she felt something was wrong. She asked for a mammogram but the doctor refused, saying black women rarely get breast cancer. Bridgette insisted, though, and early-stage cancer was discovered. Recently, her cancer came back. This time, a different doctor told her that even though there was a shadow on her x-ray, he felt it was nothing to worry about. He gave her a bottle of cough medicine and sent her home. Bridgette knew better. 

She dropped that doctor and switched to Dr. Gralow at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She’s hopeful that the good care she’s getting now will help her live a long life. Bridgette says her story is hardly unique. She insists it’s not bad doctoring, but institutionalized racism in medicine.   

If they don't have health care, they are left to die. There is no going the ‘extra mile’ for African-American women.

Disparities in health care are a reality here, but the situation is even worse in Africa. Bridgette has been to Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya to support breast cancer survivors.

The outreach is sponsored by WE CAN, Women’s Empowerment Cancer Advocacy Network, founded by my oncologist friend, Dr. Julie Gralow. Dr. Gralow is a renowned breast cancer specialist who practices at SCCA/Fred Hutch/University of Washington. Julie also travels tirelessly to remote places around the world to educate and uplift women diagnosed with breast cancer.

In Africa, she fights powerful old myths: Cancer is contagious. Cancer is a death sentence. Women who get cancer are “cursed,” and must be shunned. Tragically, many husbands desert their wives because they’re considered “tainted” and “imperfect.” 

Dr. Gralow knows the public in Africa gets very little information about risk factors, and access to diagnostic procedures and treatment is brutally difficult. For example, in Tanzania, a cancer patient may wait three or four months to receive radiation from the one functional cobalt machine in the only cancer hospital in the entire country.

LeGate with members of the WE CAN team including Bridgette Hempstead  (second from right) and Dr Julie Gralow (far right).

But, slowly, change is coming. Africa’s female survivors are finding strength in numbers. They shine their light in dark corners.  And they have strong advocates in Dr. Gralow’s team, which includes Bridgette and many others.  I witnessed this two years ago when I traveled to Tanzania to document their work. Little did I know that one day, my own diagnosis would make me a part of this energized and amazing sisterhood.

LegAte dons a bejeweled bra in the Wings of Karen Bra Dash.

I am finally wrapping up my year-long treatment regimen of immuno-biological drugs, mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstruction. While it’s a lot to go through, there are so many moments of joy along the way: hysterically laughing with girlfriends as we try on wigs. Wearing a bejeweled bra in the Wings of Karen Bra Dash. Receiving Tibetan prayer flags adorned with dozens of loving messages from friends and family. Finding my new marriage grew stronger through trial by fire.

As a person of privilege, I will continue to fight for equity in health care as a social justice issue.

In the end, each of us must own our individual journey. I am fairly certain my cancer was caused by stress. Hard science proves that stress can damage cell structure. So I spent this past year not only healing body, but mind and spirit too. I processed some deep emotional pain. I forgave ― myself and others. I worried less. Instead of hanging on to sorrow, I acknowledged it and let it pass through me.

I practiced yoga and meditation. I took long walks with friends. I started my day with a gratitude list. I mindfully observed nature, which buoyed my soul. I even grew to appreciate ridiculously short hair. And as a person of privilege, I will continue to fight for equity in health care as a social justice issue. 

I don’t wish breast cancer on anyone, but there is life after diagnosis. Perhaps the best yet. 


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Penny LeGate

Penny LeGate is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, activist and storyteller. She has worn many hats in her career, including serving as a television anchor for KIRO 7 and as co-host of KING 5’s Evening Magazine. 

More stories by Penny LeGate

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Thank you for your encouraging message. 

Cancer is not racist.  There are a lot of White, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, German etc etc.  who are not financially able to pay for treatment.  my sister has stage 2 Uterine Cancer and is to big to have surgery.  She has Mdicare but no other financial help and only lives on SSI $700.00 a month.  So I guess you can say if your Fat and get Uterine Cancer go home and put your affairs in order because it is going to keep growing if Radiation doesn't work and it DIDN'T.  Upsets me to her you think it's about race.  IT'S NOT................................................................

Hi Penny - I heard your interview on KIRO radio last week and I just have to say that I have thought a lot about your interview over the weekend and I am very disturbed by one of your last comments on the interview about how your new boobs are better than your old ones... haha.  Well, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012 and had a double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy, and now three reconstructive surgeries to repair a common complication... capsular contracture.   Your comments lead people to believe that breast cancer somehow improves our lives.  It doesn't.  Next time you are in an interview and want to talk about your new boobs please be honest about what is really going on!  How about the fact that with a double mastectomy you have absolutely NO FEELING THAT WILL NEVER RETURN!  Your have scars from your incisions and drains that WILL NEVER GO AWAY!!!  Please help us let the general public know that breast cancer is not pink and fuzzy and that it sucks!!!!  Your comments were just ridiculous and you are not helping anybody with your misleading comments!!!

Dear Penny,We met many years ago when I was volunteering on a Fred Hutch Guild that sponsored their annual fundraising Gala. You and Brian we're hosting Evening Magazine at the time and you donated a dinner with the two of you to our auction. I bought the item and remember having a wonderful evening and you two were both so warm and friendly.  Thank you for that special evening. I wish you the best during your breast cancer challenge and applaud your positive spirit. Take care and know that many care about you and wish you well. 

Penny, Thank you for sharing your journey. I worked in global health for many years and was always shocked at the lack of access for diagnosis and treatment, especially in Africa. Many women wouldn't seek help until they were at Stage 4.  I now celebrate my breast health with excellent bras.You are such an inspiration. Wishing you the best.

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