Ricki Fairley was told she had 2 years to live. That was 8 years ago. And now that doctor calls Ricki her miracle.
Ricki allowed herself to have one, and only one, “pity party,” as she calls it, the day the doctor put an expiration date on her life. She briefly described this low point to me, choosing instead to focus on the joys in her life and her newfound purpose. Within minutes of beginning our conversation, it became apparent that Ricki is a woman of great determination and great faith. Her energy is contagious and her joy, abundant. When she remembers the day of her pity party, she says, “Somehow I knew that God had me. My friends and I prayed together every day. But I didn’t pray for healing. I prayed for God’s will to be done. I didn’t know if I was supposed to die then or not, but I had faith that God knew what I was up against. I had to put my child through college. Somehow, I had faith it was going to be okay.”
At the time of her diagnosis, she was a partner in a marketing agency. She and her husband lived in a large 5-bedroom, 6-bathroom home on 2 acres in the suburbs of Atlanta. Their daughters were aged 26 and 19 years. The elder daughter worked in the Obama White House, and the younger was in her sophomore year at Dartmouth College. Ricki was the breadwinner for her family and, as she told me, the “rainmaker” for her company. All was going along beautifully. But Ricki hadn’t realized her life’s purpose quite yet. It took a breast cancer diagnosis for her next assignment to be revealed.
During an annual exam, her doctor found a peanut-sized lump under her left nipple. Ricki’s career kept her so busy during this time of her life that the lump amounted to an annoyance that she didn’t want to address. She was convinced the biopsy would result in a false alarm—she simply could not accommodate a breast cancer diagnosis. Ricki remembers, “The day I had my biopsy, I was driving to the appointment while conducting a call with a client. I arrived at the doctor’s office, phone still glued to my ear, to find my daughter, the doctor, and the nurse standing together, waiting for me. My daughter grabbed my phone out of my hand and clicked it off. I said, ‘Are you crazy?! You hung up on my client!’”
After the biopsy, Ricki headed to the airport for a business trip. As she was going through security, her doctor called. “Ricki, you have breast cancer. I think you should come home.”
Refusing to slow down, Ricki replied, “I really can’t. I have to give a speech tomorrow. I have 6 things planned over the next 2 weeks, speaking engagements, and client meetings. I have to go. I’ll call you when I get back.”
Three days later, her doctor called again. “Ricki, we have the pathology report. Not only do you have breast cancer, but you have triple-negative breast cancer. You need to come home.”
“What does that mean? ‘Triple negative’ sounds pretty good.”
“No, no, no. You need to come home.”
Peace Is Non-Negotiable
Like many patients, Ricki immediately turned to Google; and the notoriously frightening “Dr. Google” said, “Triple negative is the worst breast cancer you can have. It has the highest mortality rate. There are no drugs that work for it. You should prepare for the worst.”
And those were the thoughts running through Ricki’s head when she met with her nurse navigator. Ricki had an epiphany of sorts at that meeting. Her navigator spoke to her about the importance of reducing her stressors as a means of improving her quality of life. Forced to slow the pace of her life and remove stress, Ricki realized that not only did she have to get the cancer out of her body, but she had to remove all the cancers from her life and increase her peace. She began with the former and chose to have a double mastectomy followed by 6 rounds of chemotherapy and 10 weeks of radiation. But 1 year later, the cancer returned. Her doctor told her, “You’re metastatic. You have about 2 years. You need to get your affairs in order.”
“I don’t have time for this! I have to put my kid through college. You don’t understand. I have to work. You and God and I have to work something out.”
Ricki completed 4 more rounds of chemotherapy and, miraculously, the cancer became undetectable.
During this second round of treatment, she went to work removing other cancers from her life. She says, “I divorced my husband of 30 years. I quit my business partner and started my own company between my third and fourth rounds of chemo. I sold my big house in the suburbs and moved to a little 1‑bedroom condo on the Chesapeake Bay near my hometown. I totally changed everything about my life. I knew that I had to choose life and find peace. I had to learn that my peace is non‑negotiable.”
Ricki talks about her purpose in life and believes her first assignment was to support her daughter through college. Check, mission accomplished. At the graduation ceremony, Ricki wondered what her next assignment would be. Then it came to her, with absolute clarity, she thought, “I have to help other women. That’s why I am here. I have to talk about breast health.”
With the same vigor and strong spirit that Ricki approaches every aspect of her life, she turned her attention to helping others diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She became involved in the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation and was asked to join its board. She became involved in the Sisters Network, a national African American breast cancer survivorship organization, and is now its Vice President, Strategic Partnerships & National Programs. She has worked with several pharmaceutical companies as an advisor and speaker. But primarily, she is a patient advocate. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t contact her looking for advice, guidance, and reassurance.
As an African American woman, Ricki is especially interested in helping others in her community. “Every woman fighting breast cancer is suffering, black or white; it’s not good for anybody. But we have a different battle to fight because of social determinants of health.
“The challenges of a black woman with breast cancer are different because she doesn’t have the quality of care, she doesn’t necessarily trust the system, and she may be more likely to be a single mom. One of the statistics that people find astounding is that 77% of African American mothers are single. Now add breast cancer to that equation. How is that mother going to prioritize her life? What is she going to do? Go to work and feed her kid or get a mammogram and go to chemo? Her circumstance really dictates her choices.”
Ricki strongly encourages black women to connect with each other. She recalls attending a breast cancer support group where she was the only black woman in the room and the only woman with triple-negative breast cancer. “The other women hadn’t even heard of triple negative, so we could not relate to each other at all. They were complaining about weight gain from taking the drug tamoxifen, while I had lost 30 pounds in a month. We fight a different fight. It’s a different cancer.
“Being around African American women is so important to me. That’s why the Sisters Network exists. We’re here to give you information to help you, but really to give you a hug and say ‘We get it.’ We understand that you have 3 kids at home and you have to work. We understand that you’re challenged financially. We understand that you may not have health insurance. We understand that you’ve got to pay the light bill today.”
Not only does Ricki advocate for breast cancer survivors, she encourages families to share their health histories before a cancer diagnosis. Many times, out of fear, families do not talk about their breast cancer risk. She says, “We don’t talk about it at home until somebody gets sick. When somebody gets cancer then it all comes out. ‘Oh, Grandma Edith had that. Aunt Louise had that.’ We know about it, but we don’t talk about it or our risk. It’s really important to put all that on the table.
“Everything in a black family happens at the kitchen table, everything. The food, the counseling, the talking, it’s all at the kitchen table. So sit at the table and talk about this stuff. You don’t have to die of breast cancer. We can’t prevent it, but if you detect it early, we can cure it.”
Talking with Ricki is an absolute joy. She truly is a beacon of hope. I am grateful for her willingness to share her story with me so that I can share it with you. I am hopeful that her story will help many others battling triple-negative breast cancer.