Wealthy Breast Cancer Survivor Dedicates Money, Time to Helping Poor Patients

PHOTO: Dee Dee Ricks and Dr. Harold Freeman PlayABC News
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Dee Dee Ricks was just 38 years old when she found out she had stage-two breast cancer. She was presented with a difficult decision.

"I was told my chances are better by having a double mastectomy," she told "Nightline" in 2011. "I'm like, 'You do the most radical treatment possible.' I want to be around for my boys."

Ricks, the mother of two young sons, took on the fight of her life and another battle as well. The divorced mother had already pulled herself out of poverty and made a fortune on Wall Street. Now, she wanted to help poor women have the same chance to survive breast cancer that she did. Ricks' battle was at the heart of the HBO documentary "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks," which first aired in 2011.

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

Just one week after her double mastectomy, Ricks traveled 60 blocks north from her New York City penthouse apartment to Harlem to meet with renowned surgeon Dr. Harold Freeman of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention.

"I was really going to come and cut cancer out of Harlem," Freeman said. "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."

Freeman, once the president of the Cancer Society, said screening and diagnosis matter, noting that if breast cancer is caught in its earliest stages it can be curable "almost to 100 percent." However, late-stage breast cancer, he said, is fatal "at nearly 100 percent."

While visiting with Freeman, Ricks met his patient Cynthia Dodson, who was diagnosed late with stage-four breast cancer, as is often the case when women are uninsured.

"Am I supposed to die because I wasn't, you know, born with a silver spoon? I'm supposed to die?" Dodson said in the HBO documentary. "I'm doing my best to live. I'm doing my best to think positive. Prayer worked for me a lot. It wasn't so much prayer with others, it was more of me one on one with God myself. Because I had plenty of nights where I was like, 'Please don't take my life.'"

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

"It's a tale of two cities in a way," Freeman said. "What can happen to two different women with the same disease in the same city."

"It's not acceptable that women die of breast cancer or because they're poor and because they're uninsured," he added. "We can fix that, America."

When Ricks first met Freeman and found out he was struggling to raise $2.5 million or lose a vital pledge that would match it, she dedicated her time to helping him raise money. Ricks told "Nightline" two years ago that she had already given Freeman "over seven figures" and had raised over $10 million.

Today, Ricks and Freeman are continuing their work together. She has raised an additional $2 million to train people to become "patient navigators," people who can help others work through the health care system. It's an initiative Freeman pioneered more than 20 years ago.

"Poor people meet barriers when they try to get through this complex health care system. So we invented this thing called patient navigation and it began to work. We changed the five-year survival rate in Harlem for breast cancer from 39 percent to 70 percent by two interventions, screening and patient navigation," he said.

In another three years, Ricks estimates their effort will have trained more than 5,000 people to be patient navigators, a third of them previously unemployed. One of their partners is an organization called Strive in Harlem, which trains the unemployed members of the community for jobs.

"So not only are we saving lives, but we're putting our country back to work," Ricks said.

Ricks knows firsthand the difference a navigator can make. When her friend and make-up artist Valdis was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer, Valdis' doctor wanted to put her on a new drug that the Food and Drug Administration hadn't approved yet and her insurance company declined to cover it. Valdis said it would have cost her about $6,000 per treatment if it hadn't been for Ricks acting as her navigator. She ended up getting the medication.

Back at the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, Nightline talked to another patient named Sheila Santana. Though her breast cancer is now in remission, Santana said she believes she wouldn't have had the strength to get through the health care system without her patient navigator, Patricia Montanez.

"I'm overwhelmed also with this sickness that I'm going through," Santana said. "I need Patricia to be here for me."

Ricks and Freeman have become not just business partners, but also good friends. Just this spring, Ricks got married and she asked Freeman give her away.

"Dr. Freeman had saved me emotionally and mentally and given me a purpose in life," she said.