Tale of Two Patients: Survival Barriers for Poor Women with Breast Cancer

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Dee Dee Ricks was only 38 when she found out she had Stage 2 breast cancer. A divorced mother of two young sons, she had pulled herself out of poverty and made a fortune on Wall Street.

“I was told my chances are better by having a double mastectomy,” said Ricks. “I'm like you do the most radical treatment possible. I want to be around for my boys.”

As Ricks fought for her own life, she took on another fight as well -- to help poor women have the same chance for a cure that she did. That battle was at the heart of the HBO documentary “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks.”

“I felt it was my obligation to give back to those that didn't have what I had,” explained Ricks.

So, just one week after a double mastectomy, Ricks traveled 60 blocks north from her penthouse apartment, a world away to Harlem, to meet with renowned surgeon Dr. Harold Freeman.

“I was really going to come and cut cancer out of Harlem,” said Dr. Freeman. “But cancer wouldn't yield to the knife. Why? Because the people were poor and uninsured and coming in too late for surgery to be the main answer.

“Early breast cancer, the earliest stages of breast cancer, are curable, almost to 100 percent,” he continued. “Late breast cancer, people die from it at nearly 100 percent.”

That shocking reality was brought home to Ricks at their first meeting when Dr. Freeman told her he's struggling to raise $2.5 million or lose a vital pledge of the same amount. Ricks promised she would get him that money.

Since being diagnosed, she has raised about $10.3 million, and personally given a little over seven figures herself.

“The best thing that ever happened to me is cancer, because it opened up to all the suffering that's going on in this world,” said Ricks. “And I want to make a difference.”

Something else important happened up in Harlem -- an otherwise unlikely friendship that opened her heart and broke it. Dr. Freeman introduced Ricks to his patient, Cynthia Dodson. She was diagnosed late with Stage 4 breast cancer, as is so often the case when women are uninsured.

“I'm supposed to die?” said Dodson. “Because I wasn't, you know, born with a silver spoon? I'm supposed to die? You have to come in with the attitude that, yeah, okay, I have cancer, but I'm not trying to die.”

Out of her own pocket, Ricks paid for Dodson’s care, but it was too late. The disease that brought them together ultimately separated them. Dodson died at age 44.

“It's not acceptable that women die of breast cancer or because they're poor and because they're uninsured,” said Dr. Freeman. “We can fix that, America.”

Two years after the HBO documentary aired, Ricks and Dr. Freeman are in Harlem, doing just that.

They're at an organization called Strive, which aims to put people in the neighborhood back to work.

Ricks has raised an additional $2 million to train people to become patient navigators. That's something Dr. Freeman pioneered more than 20 years ago.

“We held a national hearing in 1989 when I was president of the cancer society and we saw this universal problem,” he said. “Poor people meet barriers when they try to get through this complex healthcare system. So we invented this thing called patient navigation and it began to work. We changed the 5-year survival rate in Harlem for breast cancer from 39 percent to 70 percent by two interventions: screening and patient navigation.”

“Over the next 3 years, we will train over 5,000 people with the skills necessary to be a navigator,” said Ricks. “And a third of whom must be unemployed. So not only are we saving lives, but we're putting our country back to work.”

And just this Spring, Ricks went through another life-changing event with Dr. Freeman at her side. He gave her away at her wedding.

It was Ricks’ youngest son, Jordan, who reminded them just what Dr. Freeman had done for their family: “Thank you for saving my mom's life, Dr. Freeman.”

“He realized that Dr. Freeman had saved me, emotionally and mentally, and given me a purpose in life,” said Ricks.