Spreading Wealth After Tough Lessons From Cancer

The new documentary The Education of Dee Dee Ricks premieres on HBO Thursday. It charts the story of a self-admitted vain white businesswoman who questions her lavish life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She realizes how lucky she is to be able to afford treatment. This galvanizes Ricks to advocate and raise money for poor, uninsured cancer patients — many who happen to be women of color. Michel Martin speaks with Dee Dee Ricks about her personal transformation and outreach.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, if your idea of roughing it on vacation is a hotel where room service ends at 11:00, a new website has a challenge for you. The women behind the site, Outdoor Afro, is encouraging everybody, but particularly people of color, to consider camping and hiking and other outdoor getaways. We'll hear from her in a few minutes.

But first, we hear from a woman whose idea of roughing it was having to fly commercial until she discovers she has breast cancer. The new documentary, "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks," follows Dee Dee, a 39-year-old hedge fund consultant and divorced mother of two, in the months after her diagnosis. The crisis makes Dee Dee Ricks question not just her lux lifestyle, but also how the health care system treats poor people in the same situation. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE EDUCATION OF DEE DEE RICKS")

DEE DEE RICKS: Every time I get a bill and I look at what this is costing me, thus far, I've spent $26,000 out of my pocket. In my head, I'm like, wait a minute. I've got all the money in the world to take care of this. Women that don't have insurance or women that, you know, make $30,000 a year, I don't know how they do it.

MARTIN: What Dee Dee Ricks learned and what that led her to do is at the heart of the new documentary, "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks," which premieres tonight on HBO. And Dee Dee Ricks is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RICKS: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: You found out that you had an aggressive form of stage two breast cancer. Your sons were five and two at the time and you said that you originally hoped - you say in the film - that you originally started videotaping conversations with you because you were hoping that that would help them remember you if you didn't survive the cancer. But how did you come up with the idea of a documentary?

RICKS: What ended up happening is I met Dr. Harold Freeman in Harlem and he uttered the words, poverty should not be an offense that is punishable by death. And I became dedicated to his life's work. I made a commitment to him at that moment to raise $2.5 million. And I walk out. I'm like, oh, my gosh, I can't believe I made a commitment to raise 2.5 million for the center, but how am I going to do it? And I worked with Lisa Cohen, who is a producer on "Nightline," to develop these infomercials on the various charities that I was raising money for.

MARTIN: First of all, let me just play the clip of where you decide in that kind of moment of commitment that you're going to do this. Let me just - can I just play that clip?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE EDUCATION OF DEE DEE RICKS")

RICKS: And you need $2.5 million. Consider it done.

Dr. HAROLD FREEMAN: (Unintelligible).

RICKS: I will get you your money.

FREEMAN: Oh, my God.

RICKS: And I'm going to get it for you in the next couple of months, Dr. Freeman.

FREEMAN: Oh, my God.

RICKS: What you have done for this nation and the fact that you have to go out there and work to raise $2.5 million is a disgrace. This is going to be my job.

FREEMAN: Thank you. I don't know if I can talk anymore.

MARTIN: As you can hear, it was a very emotional...

RICKS: I'm about to start crying.

MARTIN: ...moment and, yeah, me, too. But the film makes it very clear that none of this was easy. And, first of all, it was not as easy as I think you hoped it would be to get that money. And I am curious about why you think that is.

RICKS: I'm going to be quite honest. No one really cares about the uninsured and underinsured. And it's frightening to me, Michel, that this is going on in our country. And, you know, you read the papers, but that's about the extent of really pushing the envelope in educating yourself about what's going on in the country with health care disparities.

MARTIN: This was not easy for you and dealing with cancer, particularly having two young children, was not easy and being a single mom. But then you get acquainted with people who haven't got anything and are fighting this battle, really, with both hands tied behind their backs. For example, in the course of the film, you and we meet Cynthia Dodson. She's an African-American woman diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer at the age of 41. She had no insurance. She talked to you about her experience being diagnosed. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE EDUCATION OF DEE DEE RICKS")

CYNTHIA DODSON: What was told to me that some hospitals are not even going to begin touching me at all without any money. That's heartbreaking because you want to look at the person and go, so what? I'm supposed to die because I wasn't, you know, born with a silver spoon? I'm supposed to die? I have cancer, but I'm not trying to die. I'm doing my best to live. I'm doing my best to think positive. Prayer works for me a lot, because I have plenty of nights where I've seen some (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Now, you're hearing this conversation and you're still sick yourself. You're still undergoing treatment yourself. What was that like for you?

RICKS: It was very cathartic. It made me feel very lucky that I had the means that I had, but it also made me realize - get your butt out of bed. You are so fortunate. That one particular scene, you know, it doesn't sound like Cynthia's happy. But, you know, when you watch the film, the best thing about Cynthia is that she's, you know, a half-full woman and she's optimistic. And having someone that was confronting what she was with no resources, there was no way that I could not be motivated.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with breast cancer survivor, Dee Dee Ricks. She is the subject of the new HBO documentary, "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks." It follows her journey through breast cancer treatment and how that opened her eyes to the plight of other people with cancer.

You know, one of the things that the film makes clear is that you do, did have money, but it still was hard because you had to fight with, negotiate with the insurance companies while you're still sick and while you're fighting cancer. Was that a surprise to you?

RICKS: Absolutely. You know, I went out of network and I was told that 70 percent of my costs would be covered. Well, what they don't tell you - it's the average cost of coverage within 100-mile radius. So, they factor in all the hospitals and what they would charge for a double mastectomy. I happened to go to the best hospital on the East Coast, Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Therefore, I was probably covered for about 15 percent of the actual cost of surgery.

MARTIN: And did that put you in financial jeopardy?

RICKS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You don't talk much about that in the film. You do talk about it, but just - can we ask, how are you? Because I think a lot of people who are well off would be surprised to learn that somebody who...

RICKS: I've been through my entire savings.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RICKS: My boys - you know, at the end of this, you see me moving out of our penthouse apartment that I was renting for $36,000 a month. And, you know, my worst fear as a divorced mother, we moved into that apartment when Jordan was one and I come from a very troubled childhood. And my worst fear was making my children move. And I kept hanging onto this apartment, thinking the economy's going to get better. You know, the hedge funds are going to turn around and then the financial crisis hit. So, I hit double whammy. I had the financial crisis and cancer. And I went through my entire savings trying to keep the home that the boys and I had lived in for six years.

And it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, having to give up that apartment, because we spent a year with one of my dear friends living for free in a tiny two-bedroom apartment and the boys and I became closer than we ever have. And we learned a very valuable lesson together that home is where the heart is and money can't buy you love.

MARTIN: You know, the film makes the point at the beginning of the film. You talked very openly about being vain. And when I say you open up in the film, you really opened up. I think this might be the first time anybody's ever - that some people will ever have seen a mastectomy post-op. And I am wondering why you agreed to do that or you decided to do that. And was there ever a point at which you told people, stop, no more?

RICKS: The joke in my family is - my father's like, it should have been called "The Exposure of Dee Dee Ricks."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICKS: That's the southern in him. But I will say that it was difficult. And every time I see the scene where I look at myself for the first time after having a double mastectomy, I cry. It was a process of, when I was first diagnosed, getting on the Internet and everything I saw was just a horrific image.

And so, I decided, you know what? It can't be this bad, so we're going to film what I look like in the beginning and then we're going to film, like, you know, the process of rebuilding and we're going to create an eight-minute YouTube video. And that was my thought process when we filmed all the scenes because I didn't want other women to feel the fear that I felt.

MARTIN: You know, it's not a secret exactly that we're still having this big debate over health care in this country, how it gets paid for, who's supposed to pay. There's so much here to think about. You know, what do you want us to learn from this? What do you - I'm not even really sure which question to ask because there are so many things one could ask.

RICKS: Right. And I don't want this to be - you know, so many people have said, you know, what's the answer to health care? And I'm not educated enough to opine on that. I can tell you that, where I feel that I can make the biggest impact for those that are underinsured or uninsured is through Patient Navigation. And that's basically - the concept is you take someone's hand and you encourage them to go get screened in their neighborhoods, in their communities, by someone that speaks the same language, understands their culture. And if there is a suspicious finding, you help them guide through the complexities of the health care system.

MARTIN: The film is called "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks." Dee Dee, what do you think is the most important lesson you learned from this experience? What's the most important lesson you'd like the rest of us to learn?

RICKS: It's never too late to change. I was horrified at the woman I was in 2007 and now I'm so proud of who I am and I'm so proud of the work that I've been able to accomplish. And I've left a legacy that my kids are going to be proud of.

MARTIN: Dee Dee Ricks is the subject of the new HBO documentary "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks." She is now the chairman of the board of the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute. That's a program that helps uninsured cancer patients get treatment and navigate that process. And Dee Dee Ricks was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

RICKS: Thank you, Michel.

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