Dee Dee Ricks epitomizes the woman for whom Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar was created. Blue-eyed, blonde and stunning, she dwelt in a $14 million Manhattan penthouse, reaping in so many millions as a hedge fund consultant that she was compelled to go on shopping sprees, plunking down $20,000 on items like alligator handbags to try to burn through it. Indeed, this is how Ricks viewed her role in life, until the day she discovered a lump in her breast.
“It was one of those strange scenarios. I was moving out of our home in the Hamptons to a rental because we’d had a flood. I had to find a bra, and I realized that my breast felt achy and heavy, so I checked, and I felt a lump. I knew immediately it was cancer,” says Ricks, recalling that day six years ago.
Although her doctor initially pooh-poohed the possibility, given her age (38), lack of risk factors and the fact that she’d had a breast MRI just 18 months earlier. But it was breast cancer, stage 2. She underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and is now cancer-free. And there is where the story would have ended, if the woman were not Ricks.
But Dee Dee Ricks was a woman in search of redemption and has taken on the role of a patient advocate and superlative fundraiser, as well as the star of “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks,” a 2011 HBO documentary that tells not only of her battle with breast cancer, but of her awakening and transformation into a champion on behalf of the millions of women who lack money for medical care.
Indeed, the prospect that Ricks was not going to be your average breast cancer patient was apparent right from the start. Newly diagnosed, she was at a fundraising auction when she decided to bid on the opportunity to sing with Steven Tyler. “Jon Stewart was the emcee, and I was bidding against one of my billionaire clients, and I’m thinking, ‘This is ridiculous. You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer,’ and Stewart is saying to me, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime, and you’ll look really hot on stage.’”
Moments earlier, Ricks had read in the auction brochure that that for every $50,000 the auction raised, 3,400 uninsured New York-area women would receive mammograms. She ended up bidding $400,000, and, as she joined Tyler onstage, she took the microphone and announced to the 7,000-member audience, “I’m having a double mastectomy.” “I also told them that if they donated $50,000, they could help 3,400 women too,” she recalls. “It was amazing, and it was at that moment that I became a champion of the underserved community,” she added.
Not content to just write the check, Ricks decided she wanted to see exactly where the money would go, so she was directed to the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem. There, she met founder and head, Dr. Harold P. Freeman, a breast cancer surgeon who has devoted his career to advocating on behalf of the poor.
With Dr. Freeman leading the way, Ricks began her “education” of the disparities of healthcare, and why, for women like her, having means and health insurance translates into life, instead of death. “In early breast cancer, the cancer is curable almost to 100 percent. Late breast cancer, people die of it, almost by 100 percent,” Dr. Freeman tells her.
And, as if to underscore this, Dr. Freeman introduces Ricks to Cynthia Dobson. Like Ricks, Dobson is attractive, bright and personable. But unlike Ricks, she is black, poor and, with no health insurance, her breast cancer was not diagnosed until it had spread. “It’s like a Tale of Two Cities,” says Dr. Freeman. The women bond, and Ricks pays for Dobson’s care, but she dies, nevertheless.
Dr. Freeman credits Ricks with not only raising millions for his center but also for using her pulpit to turn a spotlight on the underserved. “Here you have this very attractive woman, blonde, blue-eyed, a typical American, and then breast cancer hits her, and she changes her way of thinking. She was converted into a person who wanted to help the poor, and she is influencing other people who live the life that she had lived and showing them what they can do to help. This, to me, is the critical part of her story.”
Through her work, Ricks has found the redemption she was searching for, the sense of worth that Manolo Blahniks and alligator purses could not provide. “Oh, thank God. It’s night and day. I don’t even miss the old lifestyle. Before this happened, my life was absurd. I was very narcissistic; I cared about my appearance, and I could afford it. But, when tragedy happens, one of two things occurs: you grow and learn from it, or you put it in the back of your mind and don’t deal with it.”
Very obviously, Dee Dee Ricks learned from it.
“The Education of Dee Dee Ricks,” is available on iTunes and also as a DVD that can be ordered through her website of the same name. All of the proceeds will go to the Patient Navigation Center as well as a project that takes mammogram vans to rural Arkansas.
Interview by Charlotte Libov