The WellSpan Spotlight

Patient stories

I am a Black woman who survived breast cancer

I am a Black Woman who survived breast cancer

2022 was a year of birthdays I will never forget.

On Jan. 12, the day my middle child turned 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On Feb. 6, the day I turned 55, I was recovering from a lumpectomy to remove the tumor.

On April 30, the day my family celebrated my beloved mom turning 80, I had already completed my follow-up radiation treatments and was there to watch her blow out her candles on her beautiful cake, with more than 100 family members and close friends.

It was a happy birthday for my mom and I'm looking forward to more happy days ahead myself.

My name is Kim Brister. I am a Black woman who has survived breast cancer because WellSpan gave me the gift of focused, compassionate care that resulted in both the early detection and treatment of my breast cancer.

WellSpan also gave me the opportunity to participate in a genomics community health research project that tested me for a hereditary form of breast cancer and other forms of hereditary cancer – tests that all came back negative. That gave me peace of mind with regards to those conditions as the mother of three children. I want them to also look forward to happy days ahead.

I am a private person, so sharing all of this does not come easily to me.

But I am stepping outside of my comfort zone because I want all women to know how important it is to be regularly screened for breast cancer. Early detection can be the difference between life and death for some women.

You may be surprised to learn that Black women, like me, have a 40% higher death rate from breast cancer and that among women under the age of 50, the disparity is even greater.

While young women overall have a higher incidence of aggressive cancers, young Black women, like my daughter, face double the mortality rate.

I have been blessed to have caregivers who made sure I did not have that experience.

My breast cancer journey began in 2021.

My regular mammograms started showing a suspicious spot on my right breast, so I had been having follow-up ultrasounds to ensure everything was OK. At my annual exam that year, my wonderful WellSpan gynecologist, Dr. Jilian White, recommended that if my upcoming mammogram continued to show the spot, I should have a biopsy.

When I had my mammogram late 2021, there was a suspicious finding but this time it was in my left breast. The radiologist ordered a biopsy.

On the morning of Jan. 12, Dr. White called me and said, "I have some difficult news."

The good news, if there was any at this point, was that my cancer was stage 1 and treatable.

I felt reassured when a treatment plan was put into place after my lumpectomy.

Next up was radiation treatments, 23 in all. My goal was to complete them before my mom's birthday party and I did, 12 days before the celebration took place.

My tumor was fed by estrogen so I now take a Tamoxifen pill, a drug that blocks estrogen activity and may help to stop the growth of breast tumors that need estrogen to multiply. I also am working to stay in shape, knowing that diet and exercise are critical for my long-term breast and overall health.

Plans and goals? I have lots of them, thanks to a future I can see ahead of me now.

I am a planner and function best when I know how to move forward and what to do next. I like to set and achieve goals in my role as vice president and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at WellSpan.

I also like to set and achieve goals in my personal life. Annually, I like to take trips or plan activities with each of my children. In 2022, I've been to Portugal with my older son, a Philadelphia Eagles pre-season game with my younger son, and a music concert with my daughter, the youngest of my three children. I must admit that this has been a year of ensuring that I live life to the fullest and that I include family and friends along the way.

I was an early participant in the Gene Health Project at WellSpan.

WellSpan is joining with other health care systems across the country that are partnering in a community health research project with a population genomics company called Helix.

Over the next four years, WellSpan will recruit at least 100,000 participants age 18 or older to participate in the project at no cost. I was lucky enough and eager to be included in the first wave of patients. I provided a vial of blood, containing a DNA sample that was analyzed by Helix in their laboratory. As part of the research program, each participant sample completes genetics screening, which focuses on certain genes that cause a hereditary form of high cholesterol, a hereditary form of breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, and a hereditary form of colorectal cancer.

It is critical to note that most women are like me, who have no family history of cancer and who also will have negative results on this screening test. Overall, only 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are hereditary, underscoring the need for regular screenings for women even if they do NOT have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer.

Some women also share another trait of mine: they have extremely dense breasts, a type of tissue that increases your risk of breast cancer and also make self-exams challenging. It's just one more reason to ensure you get regular mammograms.

The American Cancer Society recommends women start getting mammograms at the age of 40, and every woman over age 40 is eligible for a screening mammogram. Affordability doesn't have to be a barrier. WellSpan has programs in place to help with cost when needed. WellSpan also brings its mobile mammography unit to areas where a woman might be struggling to access preventive screenings, whether due to finances or access.

This experience has taught me so much.

Here's my takeaway for all women – and those who love them.

Early detection of breast cancer and excellent follow-up treatment are critical for your recovery and your prognosis. I'm cancer-free today because I had the care that WellSpan also can offer you.

Do it for yourself, and for all of those birthdays ahead that you want to celebrate with your family and friends and everyone you hold near and dear. 

For more about the Gene Health Project at WellSpan.