Dee Dee Ricks's Cancer Crusade
by lisa horten
Months before her cancer diagnosis, hedge fund strategist Dee Dee Ricks’s home in Wainscott was flooded and torn down, and plans were put in place to rebuild it from the ground up. “It was a labor of love, for sure,” she says of the 8,000-square-foot modern farmhouse that she designed alongside architect William Sclight. As the project overlapped with her chemotherapy treatments, Ricks describes the experience as incredibly cathartic. “I built it as a nucleus for my boys,” she says. “This will always be a center where all of our special moments will happen.”
Prior to her diagnosis in 2007, Ricks was at the pinnacle of her profession, and she and her two young sons were residing in a $14 million Manhattan apartment. In a matter of seconds, cancer, along with its massive costs, surgeries, and treatments, changed that entire landscape. “I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage 2 breast cancer, and the doctor said, ‘Your left breast must come off immediately,’” she says. “My first thought was that my kids were two and five years old—how were they going to remember me if the worst happened?” Ricks went home that night and called a friend, television producer Lisa Cohen. She wanted to film moments with her boys so that if the disease proved to be fatal, they would have these recorded memories. And thus began lesson one in The Education of Dee Dee Ricks.
The personal nature of those recordings, initially assembled as a fundraising DVD, lends a raw and honest feel to what is now an HBO documentary that uses Ricks’s story—along with that of Cynthia Dodson, an uninsured woman who battled the same disease—to open up a discussion about our nation’s healthcare crisis. The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and has turned Ricks into a high-profile champion for education and awareness about breast cancer and the social injustices within our healthcare system.
Now the chair of the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute and a supporter of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem, which provides free services for the uninsured, Ricks’s message is to turn the term “patient navigation” into a household word. The concept was developed by Dr. Freeman in 1990 to guide underserved patients through the intricacies of the medical system, providing a dedicated navigator for patient outreach, diagnosis, dealing with insurance, treatment, survivorship, and everything in between.
“So many incredible things have evolved out of this experience,” she says. “I never thought I’d say it, but I’m happier now that I have been in my entire life.”
photography by eric striffler