Advocating for Black Women with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: Ricki’s Story
Stories@Gilead - March 03, 2021
Ricki Fairley thought her annual checkup would be a breeze. For the mom and marketing professional, the appointment was just one item to cross off on a long to-do list. That visit eight years ago, however, changed her life and career. Her doctor discovered a lump in her breast, and after receiving a biopsy, Ricki was told that she had triple-negative breast cancer.
“Well, that doesn't sound so bad – triple-negative, how bad could that be?” she remembers thinking at the time. “I really didn’t take it seriously.”
Triple-negative breast cancer tends to be among the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. But today, Ricki is healthy and busy advocating for other patients and working to eliminate racial disparities through her nonprofit organization, Touch: The Black Breast Cancer Alliance, a current Gilead partner.
Ricki had quite a journey before getting here, though. As she worked through her diagnosis, she eventually opted to have a double mastectomy and went on to receive six rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. A year after her diagnosis she went for a scan, and doctors found five metastasized spots on her chest.
They gave her two years to live.
Ricki dove into research and while online, she stumbled across the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, which raises awareness and provides support for those diagnosed with the disease. A patient advocate with the organization recommended a doctor to her in Atlanta, and after visiting the doctor and receiving four more rounds of chemotherapy, Ricki’s cancer was gone.
“I was a miracle,” she says. “And I knew then that breast cancer advocacy was my purpose.”
In the years since, Ricki has thrown herself into her advocacy work. She’s now a board member on the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, and she founded Touch to build community and advocate on behalf of people who have historically been left behind in research and treatment.
“When you start to look at the statistics for breast cancer and Black women, they're horrific,” she says. “Just a month ago, statistics came out that Black women with breast cancer have a 71% higher risk of death than White women. Black women also are more likely than their non-Black counterparts to be diagnosed with this form of cancer, and more often diagnosed at a younger age.”
Ricki has made it her mission to reduce the disparities. This includes collaborating with patients, survivors, healthcare professionals and researchers; advocating for more clinical trials that focus on Black women and increasing Black women's participation to tackle breast cancer in the population.
“Until we get more Black women to participate in research, we really don't know if the therapies are going to work on our bodies,” she says. “There’s an average 3% participation rate of Black women in clinical trials. We have a lot of work to do.”
Ricki with her two daughters, Amanda and Hayley.
Ricki strongly believes creating an environment that feels welcoming, safe and culturally aware for Black women could drastically change their willingness to participate in clinical trials, and could have an outsized impact on breast cancer research.
“There are a lot of characteristics about our community that make us different,” Ricki says. “More than 75% of Black moms are single moms. They're the breadwinners for their families, and it makes dealing with the disease so unique. These women are our priority.”
One of the ideas Ricki has to increase clinical trial participation is to open up a clinical trial facility for Black women in every major city in a way that would acknowledge and meet this uniqueness.
“It would be a beautiful Victorian house in a Black neighborhood, where you walk in, and a grandmother meets you at the door,” she says. “The grandmother takes your kids to the playground and you sit in the living room in this cushy chair. She gives you this crocheted blanket that she made, a cup of tea with mint from her garden, she puts on Luther Vandross and then you receive your treatment.”
Ricki with her two granddaughters, Belle and Leia.
The mission remains personal. In the eight years since Ricki’s diagnosis, she has three new reasons to change the world: She has two granddaughters and a third on the way.
“Belle is three and a half, and she’s going to have boobs in 10 years, so I have 10 years to get rid of breast cancer,” Ricki explains. “She’s my purpose, my vision. We have a lot to do between now and then.”