Finding Empathy: A Breast Cancer Wake-Up Call

A new HBO documentary that premieres at 8:30 p.m.on October 27, 2011, shows how Dee Dee Ricks found her life's purpose after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

By Shelly Levitt
dee dee ricks image
Ricks (with her nurse Sara Felhauser) removed bandages
Photograph: Courtesy of HBO

When hedge fund consultant Dee Dee Ricks, then 39, found out she had stage 2 breast cancer, here’s how she shared the news: She bid $400,000 to sing with Steven Tyler at a 2007 fund raiser, grabbed the mic and announced, “I’m having a double mastectomy next week.”

Back then, Ricks’s financial extravagance approached caricature. A divorced mother who lived in a $14 million Manhattan penthouse, she boasted, “I can’t spend the money I’m making fast enough.” Today, Ricks has downsized both her work and her lifestyle so she can devote herself to raising money for underinsured breast-cancer patients.

How she got from there to here is the subject of The Education of Dee Dee Ricks, a documentary debuting on HBO this month. The project began as a series of home movies Ricks wanted to make so that her sons, ages two and five, could remember her if the cancer proved fatal. Then, in a hospital waiting room, she heard fellow cancer patients fretting about how they were going to drive to work or give their kids a bath. “It really hit me,” says Ricks. “I had all the money in the world to deal with this. But how do women who don’t have money get through it?”

Despite her wealth, Ricks can empathize. She says she grew up “one step away from poverty” and got her first job at age 13 at a Chick‑fil‑A franchise. Ricks set herself on a more lucrative path by working her way through the University of Florida and earning a business degree.

Once she had her epiphany, however, Ricks thought less about money and more about the question “What kind of legacy would I leave?” In the HBO documentary, her quest to help other patients leads her to Harold Freeman, MD, who runs the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem. When he tells her he needs to raise $2.5 million for the center’s Patient Navigation Institute, which guides uninsured women through treatment, she replies, unflinchingly, “Consider it done.” Through Freeman, Ricks meets Cynthia Dodson, whose inability to pay for routine checkups means her breast cancer is advanced when it’s finally diagnosed. Ricks pays to have her treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, but it’s too late, and Dodson becomes a tragic illustration of Freeman’s admonition, “Poverty should not be an offense that is punishable by death.”

Cancer free today, Ricks is chairman of the board of the Patient Navigation Institute. “I’m a work in progress,” she says, “but I have found my purpose in life.”

 

Want MORE? Check out our slideshow of Celebs Who Beat Breast Cancer.

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First Published September 15, 2011

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