Destigmatizing the Conversation Around Breast Cancer for Black Women

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.

[00:00:17] Welcome to another powerful episode of the Komen Health Equity Revolution Podcast Series. Each month, we invite patients, community organizations, healthcare partners, researchers, and policy advocates to spark conversations about strategies and solutions. that drive the health equity revolution forward for multiple populations experiencing breast health inequities.

[00:00:40] Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, at later stages, and with more aggressive types of breast cancer than white women. This makes knowing your family health history crucial and potentially life saving. Ricki Fairley, a 12 year late stage breast cancer survivor is joining us on the show today to talk about the importance of normalizing conversations around breast cancer, particularly for younger women.

[00:01:07] Ricki was a guest on our show back in 2020, and we are thrilled to have her back, Ricki. Welcome back to the show.

[00:01:14] Ricki Fairley: Hey, Adam. Hey, was it that long ago? Wow. 

[00:01:18] Adam Walker: You know, it’s funny, like I read that and I thought the exact same thing. I was like, really? Does it? I feel like it’s because 2020 is this black hole that none of us really quite remembers.

[00:01:27] Ricki Fairley: You know, we were like stuck in the house. Yeah. Don’t go anywhere.

[00:01:31] Adam Walker: Yeah. Like, I know I was stuck in the house for a year, but I can’t. Really remember all that much of being stuck in the house for a year. You know what I mean?

[00:01:38] Ricki Fairley: I don’t remember when we got out either. 

[00:01:40] Adam Walker: I don’t either. I don’t either. 

[00:01:42] Ricki Fairley: I was getting the vaccine, but we still didn’t get out.

[00:01:44] Adam Walker: No. Yeah. It’s like I’ve just now emerged in so many ways. So, well, Ricki, it’s so good to see you again. For those maybe that didn’t catch your first episode with us, let’s start with your breast cancer story. Can you give us an overview of kind of your initial diagnosis? 

[00:02:00] Ricki Fairley: Sure. So I was a typical working mom, crazy person.

[00:02:04] The breadwinner for my family, the rainmaker for my agency that I work for. And and I went in for my annual checkup, which I actually did two months that I was pretty religious about it because my mom is a survivor. And so my baby daughter, Haley, who now is my boss. She was away in China for the summer.

[00:02:21] So I said, okay, you know what? I’m just going to wait till she comes home. I was really busy. I was traveling a lot and we’ll just go together and do all the appointments, the dining, the dentist, all the stuff when she gets home. And so we kind of put all this stuff into one week. And so my doctor found a lump under my nipple.

[00:02:35] Had I been doing self exams, which I wasn’t. I probably would have found it and and all of a sudden bam. You go through all this stuff, you know, sonogram, all those things, mammogram. And and yes, Ricki, you do have breast cancer and not only do you have breast cancer, you have triple negative breast cancer.

[00:02:53] I was diagnosed with stage 3-A I had a double mastectomy. I did six rounds of standard of care chemo. I did six weeks of radiation. I was told, okay, you’re now no, no evidence of disease. Come back in two months for a scan. I came back two months later, almost exactly a year to the day of my first diagnosis.

[00:03:12] And they found five spots on my chest wall. My doctor said, which is very typical of triple negative breast cancer, it comes back within a year. My doctor said, okay, Ricki I don’t really have anything more for you. You have two years to live. To live, get your affairs in order. And I said, well, I can’t really die right now.

[00:03:30] I have a daughter at Dartmouth. I got to pay tuition. So me, you and guidance and drugs or something, we got to get some, we got to work this out. And I learned pretty quickly that I was only her third patient with simple negative breast cancer. The other two had died in nine months and she really didn’t know what to do.

[00:03:44] She was a young oncologist. And so I realized I was going to have to get some help on my own. And so I went to Dr. Google and everything says you’re going to die, you’re going to die, you’re going to die fast, you’re triple negative, you’re going to die. And on the third page of Dr. Google, I found the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.

[00:03:59] Was pretty young at that time. And I called my dear friend Hayley Dinnerman. She’s my dear friend now, my sister from another mother. But so I’m going to find you a doctor and There are probably about one of about five docs in the country researching triple negative and, you know, digging into the disease and just happened to be in my neighborhood at Emory of Atlanta.

[00:04:19] And I went to Dr Ruth O’Regan, who is an incredible oncologist, and she said, okay, I’m going to put you on some experimental drugs, which were carboplatin and gemcivetamine, which were still, you know, not approved for triple negative yet. And we’ll see what happens. And so I did a lot more chemo.

[00:04:37] He’s experimental drugs and I didn’t die and it’s been 12 years. Wow. So I know God left me here. This is my God job. I know that I left him here to do this work and I’ve been an advocate, crazy advocate ever since. So I’m very. 

[00:04:53] Adam Walker: Such a fantastic. And I forgot you’re in Atlanta. So you went to Emory.

[00:04:56] I’m also in Metro Atlanta. So go to Emory.

[00:04:58] Ricki Fairley: I don’t live there anymore, but that’s where I lived when I was sick. And that’s why I got sick.

[00:05:02] Adam Walker: Oh, okay. Okay. Well, Emory is a great place to be able to go. So very fortunate. So, so so do you have any history of breast cancer in your family?

[00:05:12] Ricki Fairley: Yes. So my mom had stage zero ER positive and we learned after I had been, after I was sick, that my, my mom’s aunt died at age 42 and my mom was only nine at the time.

[00:05:24] So she really didn’t remember. And my grandmother never talked about it. You know, they didn’t talk about stuff back then. And it wasn’t until like a few years later that my mom’s aunt on the other side of her family, she was 98. And she called me one day and said, Ricki, I know I see you like breast cancer stuff.

[00:05:40] You know, you know, your aunt Louise had breast cancer and that juggled. memory and then she remember her aunt dying, but it took us to figure that out. Right. And and now what we’ve learned over the years, I don’t have any genetic mutations, you know, we’ve had genetic testing, but for black women, a family history is just as equivalent pretty much.

[00:06:01] So we have not three generations. So actually my oldest daughter She has three babies, two, four, and six, and she’s having a prophylactic mastectomy on the 26th of February. She’s going to, you know do the work to save herself. 

[00:06:15] Adam Walker: Glad she’s being proactive. She’s got a great role model in you for taking good care of herself.

[00:06:21] So so talk to me a little bit about that moment where, you know, you said you had it. You went through the treatments and then a year later, you know, you got the results that it’s back. Right. Talk to me about that moment. You found out it had spread. What was that like for you? And how did you handle that?

[00:06:37] Ricki Fairley: So, you know what? I kind of had, I had, I have undying faith. I literally, I said, okay, God, we’re jumping off this cliff. You know what I have to do with my kid? Like, so let’s go. I totally relinquished. Linkless my face, but that day I think was the one of the few days that I actually cried. I went home So I went home from the doctor and that was one of the few times I was actually alone at the doctor Because my doctor called me and said I was out to lunch with a friend and she called me They said I have some news for you Can you come to the office tomorrow?

[00:07:11] And I said, well, well, tell me what is it? And she said, well, why don’t you come to the office? I said, well, I’m coming to the office now. Are you there? Like, I don’t want to wait until tomorrow. I got in my car and I went there alone. And I’m looking back, my friends were always with me. Somebody was always with me.

[00:07:25] The doctor, my daughters, my friends, somebody. And I went by myself for the first time. So now I’m walking out of the office thinking, so I literally, I went home and I got in, I had my, one of my, a different car with me. I went home and I took my car and I drove to the Nissan dealer and I bought a Z.

[00:07:45] I bought a sports car. 

[00:07:47] Adam Walker: Like that day? Like that very That minute. What? 

[00:07:50] Ricki Fairley: That minute. And then I drove the sports car to SAC and I bought some red bottom shoes and then I went home. And so my daughter came home. Like, Mom, where’s the car? Last year, my uncle got bought a new car. Like, Mom, we have three people in our house.

[00:08:09] You only have a car that fits two people. Like, what are you gonna do? So, but that was my instinct at the moment. I’m just gonna Go spend money. Right? 

[00:08:18] Adam Walker: That’s amazing. I’ve never, I never have heard anyone say like, I guess kind of amazing. So did you, I got to ask, did you keep the car? 

[00:08:26] Ricki Fairley: So I kept the car for a year.

[00:08:28] Okay. And then after I finished my treatment and I was up, my dad was like, mom, the car has to go. You need to grow up car. You’re a grown woman. You have, you know, two people need two daughters. We can’t fit in the car and I’m not going to squeeze in the back anymore. Yeah. My daughter Lily took my car and bought 

[00:08:44] a SUV.

[00:08:45] Adam Walker:

[00:08:45] gotta say, I love your choice. Like that’s the car I would have gone and bought like, right? Like that’s the car. Like that’s literally, that’s the first, that’s the one I would have gone and bought too. Right then. Like that’s it.

[00:08:54] Ricki Fairley: I bought a stick. I was like, I was in those gears, man. I was flying a lot of stuff.

[00:08:58] Adam Walker: You

[00:08:59] are like, so my hero right now. Oh my gosh. I love that. Okay. Oh 

[00:09:04] Ricki Fairley: wow. You know, my uncle, so my uncle was 17 when I was born. So he was basically a child like her. And so he had, he first read the first Z. And I was, I had just learned to drive and so he taught me how to drive a stick and pop gears.

[00:09:20] Yeah, that’s the best, you know, and so 

[00:09:22] Adam Walker: I drive a stick to this day, but I drive a stick in a very slow four cylinder car, unfortunately. So, you know, 

[00:09:29] Ricki Fairley: but no I had a stick really until then but but yeah I went to buy my uncle’s car. That’s what I did. 

[00:09:35] Adam Walker: That’s I’ve always wanted a Z.

[00:09:37] That’s amazing. Okay. Well, all right, moving on from my own desires to have a sports car. So, so I’d imagine, so you found out you got your, you know, your second diagnosis. You went and bought an amazing car. And then I would imagine your mind went to your daughter. So like, talk a little bit about that.

[00:09:54] I mean, I know you said your daughter’s doing some proactive stuff right now, so I’d love for you to just talk about like what, how this has affected them, their screening, their approach to their health in general.

[00:10:03] Ricki Fairley: So they are, I have two daughters. They’re now, when I was sick, they sick, they were 19 and 26 or seven years apart.

[00:10:10] So they’re now 31 and 38. And Haley, the younger one, she actually was at Dartmouth. And so she actually took the semester off and stayed home with me and was my caregiver. Amanda, the older one was working in the Obama white house at the time. Yes. She took her Obama from her sophomore year at Dartmouth.

[00:10:30] They both went to And so She came home as often as she could, but she was at every doctor’s appointment with me on FaceTime or some, or, you know, on conference call or something. So, so they were very involved in my care as well as a bunch of my friends, which I can’t even talk about but it made them, I mean, a man of the person, was this going to happen to me when I was one of her first students?

[00:10:48] I don’t know. And so we’re going to take every precaution. And so literally Amanda has now, you know, they both got married. Haley just got married, but Amanda had three kids. And so she’s like, okay, mom, I’m ready now. Cause they back then I said, okay, we’ll cut off all the boobs when you’re ready. And so I’m ready now.

[00:11:04] And so, but the process has been crazy for them. It’s so she started trying to get her first mammogram at age 37 last June. It took months. Wow. Haley has been trying to get a mammogram for. At 31 for about the same time and every and basically you make the appointment online when you get to the age thing they knock them out And so I had to pull a lot of strength with my doc friends to get them scanned And we ended up getting what we call what’s called a bexa scan and it’s kind of an it’s been around for 20 years But it hasn’t been populized yet, but it’s kind of like a a sonogram They rub a little mouse looking thing over your boob and it’s better for dense breasts and guess what?

[00:11:48] Women under 40 can get it because right now The screening guidelines are not in favor of black women. If you read the fine print, there are no guidelines for black women because we’re considered high risk and there are no high risk guidelines. And 40 is too late for black women. I mean, and we talked about some of the stats, but.

[00:12:06] But anyway, so they went through a long process to get to the point to be able to have surgery to get the insurance to cover it and go through hoops. But so when I first got sick, when I had my first mammogram, they found calcium deposits on my left breast, which I ended up having surgery to take out at that time.

[00:12:26] No one said anything about. You’re at risk for breast cancer, nobody looking back now, you know, like, and so I went on with my life, right now, as Amanda has gone through this process, she actually has to benign cysts in her left breast from her, from the, all the screening that she’s had.

[00:12:43] So she’s following the pattern that I followed almost years ago. So at least she has the benefit of that knowledge to be able to even get a mammogram. So she’s getting a double mastectomy in a couple of weeks and she’s getting nipple sparing surgery. It’s all about the beauty of the boobs and re sensation now we have, they have, you know, re sensation technology where you can still feel your nerves.

[00:13:07] And so all the latest technology, but it was crazy to get to the point to be able to get the surgery because they’re under 40. And so, so Haley’s still struggling to get a mammogram. They have had VEX scans and but just their awareness of it is because we talk about it. Yeah, that’s so important.

[00:13:26] You know, Komen did some data, did a research study with the Ad Council a few years back, and it identified that 92 percent of Black women are aware of breast cancer. How odd is that? Right. 25 percent of Black women actually talk about it with their friends and family. But only 17 percent actually act on the risk.

[00:13:47] And so that

[00:13:48] Adam Walker: was raised that number.

[00:13:49] Ricki Fairley: We’ve got to change that number. And you quoted some of the data earlier, but black women ages 20 to 29 have a 53 percent higher incidence rate of breast cancer than white women, black women, 30 to 39. I have a 15 percent greater incidence rate and black women under 35 are getting breast cancer at twice the rate dying at three times the rate.

[00:14:11] And so waiting to get your first mammogram at 40 is just. Unacceptable. Unacceptable. 

[00:14:17] Adam Walker: Wow. So, all right. So, so let’s talk more about your advocacy work because that’s obviously kind of where we’re headed here. What, I mean, you just mentioned a lot of the disparities. Are there any other disparities that you found over time that you want to talk about?

[00:14:31] Ricki Fairley: Well, so many, so I had triple negative, guess what? 40 percent of triple negative patients are under the age of 40. Wow. Okay. So, It’s really bad for young women and young black men and black women get triple negative breast cancer at three times the rate of white women. Wow. And that’s the worst one. So treatment options and highest mortality rate.

[00:14:54] And so I’m a miracle. And so. I need to spread that word. I know that, you know, it’s my God job. And so last year we launched this campaign. Can you see my shirt for the love of my girls? Girls spelled G U R L S. And it’s basically, we reached out to young women and we talked to them. We have this great advisory board of young women and they’re all different phases of young women.

[00:15:18] And so, so, you know, we have a couple of young moms that are 25 and a young mom, that’s 35, you know what I mean? So sort of get all the gamut of our college students. Grad students, young moms, young married couples, and the gamut of women. And and we said, well, what do you want to know? Is it scary to know that you could die of breast cancer in your twenties?

[00:15:40] And they said, you know what? We want to know the facts. We don’t want to focus on the facts. So make it fun. So we launched this fun campaign and it’s all like funky colors and. It’s kind of like a retro seventies. Look, we have all green and orange and yellow and it’s not pink. And and we just do cool things like tomorrow.

[00:15:58] We’re having a roller skating party in DC. Nice. And it’s all about awareness, but it really has three, three tenants. One of them is black breast health. Black breast health is different. If black breast cancer is different than your health is different. And you have to look at things. Certainly your risks are different.

[00:16:16] So understand that as a foundation and then know your first story. No, you’re hurt. And we have a great worksheet tool. You can get on our website, loveofmygurls. org and and you can sit down with both grandmas and fill this out. And, you know, black families, we don’t talk about health. So it helps you help you give tools.

[00:16:35] So how do you talk to these grandmas who may not be forthcoming with the information and help you sort of guide, guide that conversation with your grandmas to understand your history. I met a family at a conference earlier this year and last late last year where the daughter was 38.

[00:16:52] She had stage three, triple negative. She didn’t find out that both of her, both her mom and her aunt. It had triple negative breast cancer in the last two years. None of them knew it. The sisters didn’t talk to each other until the daughter and niece got it. Isn’t that crazy? Wow. That’s wild. Yeah, that’s crazy.

[00:17:11] So that’s, we’re trying to foster these conversations to know your her story. And the last thing is, make breast health and act of self care. So when you go to get your nails done check your breasts like make it part of your girly routine Yeah, I like that We’re going to do something get your nails on go out to lunch with the girls, whatever but make part of your self care routine That’s a self care act.

[00:17:32] So that’s kind of three propositions We’re educating and we’re just I like to say we go where black women live work play pray and slay with events and you know, we’re You know, we walk the beach in bikinis and all over the place We do festivals hair shows all kinds of things that are not healthy Cause when you go to hell for your preaching to the choir, we’re going where the women aren’t hanging out.

[00:17:53] Adam Walker: Oh 

[00:17:53] yeah. I didn’t think about that. 

[00:17:55] Ricki Fairley: Yeah. That’s great. We’re catching them off guard saying, you know, talk about this and talk about your mom. And we have an HBCU internship program. So we have about 10 to 15 interns every semester and and they do our Tik TOK. Oh, I love that. We give them info. I have, I don’t even know what it looks like but but they do our Tik TOK, they do our Instagram.

[00:18:16] We do a lot of Instagram lives with them and they educate their. Families, their families and their friends. And we have them do a poll on Instagram at the beginning and the end, so they can see the impact that they made. And they’re so proud of themselves because in most circumstances that this is the first time they’ve ever talked to their moms about foods, but we have these great videos of them talking to their moms, explaining breast health to their moms.

[00:18:40] And it’s very cool. 

[00:18:41] Adam Walker: That’s so, I mean, so important. It’s so important. And I mean, to your point, I think you said it earlier, like knowing your breast health history, your family history is one of the most important things you can possibly do to know, you know, your health trajectory. Right, right, right.

[00:18:57] Ricki Fairley: Take an action like Amanda is, you know, and act and help save yourself. 

[00:19:02] Adam Walker: Yeah, that’s right. So, so talk a little bit about, you know, you’ve got, you’ve mentioned your daughters. I think you mentioned grand children. I don’t remember if they were granddaughters or not. Oh man. Okay. Well, so how, like, talk about how that, how does that feel your passion for this work?

[00:19:18] Ricki Fairley: They are my purpose. My grandbabies, they’re two, four and six. And I’ll tell you a grandma story. So my grandma name is Debbie. Love you, Debbie. They call me Debbie. So, and I live at the beach, I live in Annapolis on the water. And so, so we’re always naked, you know, wearing bikinis. And so we’re in the shower and this was a year ago now we’re in the shower.

[00:19:34] So, so bell was five and the baby was still nursing. And so she’s like, so Debbie, how come you don’t have those things on your boobs that baby heart sucks on because I have my nipples. So I spent the next hour explaining everything to her. And I showed her pictures of my boobs. I showed her everything I’m doing.

[00:19:54] I showed her, like, I showed her what we were doing for touch and touch. And so, and you know, they absorb what they absorb. And so, so, and I said, you know, we’re never going to talk about this again. We’re going to close this chapter. So now, you know, everything I know, and it’s over because I don’t want them to talk about it.

[00:20:07] And so of course she went to school the next day and told her class that her grandma has fake boobs, but that’s okay. So she took away from it. Yup. Yup. Every now and then she’s like, let me see your fake boobs. But. But I want it to go away. And so that’s why so much of our work is working on advancing the science.

[00:20:26] And we pretty much work with all the breast cancer, all the pharma companies that make breast cancer drugs to help them recruit black women for clinical trials, change how they talk about clinical trials to get more black women into the research so we can get better drugs because the drugs we have just aren’t working for us.

[00:20:43] And, but I don’t want them to think about breast cancer. And I want to put myself out of a job like when they have boobs that we got about 10 years before they get boobs and I want to be fired. I want all of us to be fired from this work and that they don’t have to deal with it. So, so I challenge our farmer buddies every day.

[00:21:00] Like you got it. You’re working for my granddaughters. Bring it, look it up for me, you know. 

[00:21:05] Adam Walker: That’s great. Alright, so, so last question what would be your words of advice, your words of wisdom to young black women that might not yet be aware that they’re at risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime?

[00:21:18] Ricki Fairley: Yeah, the same three things we’re talking about with Love of My Gurls. Know your body, know your normal, you know it better than anyone. And, you know, your boobs are going to change over time but know your body, know what they look like, stand in front of the mirror, look at them, feel them, touch them, get familiar with them.

[00:21:34] And so if something abnormal happens, you can recognize it because so many young women will go to the doctor and present with a lump and get dismissed. Oh, you’re only 20, you’re only 25. Come back in six months. And in six months, they’re metastatic. And so be able to say, you know what, this was not here a month ago because I felt it a month ago.

[00:21:54] And stand up for yourself and demand the care that you deserve. Don’t walk away from those appointments like that. And then know your her story. Talk to your grandmas. And make it a conversation in your household, you know, talk about it at the kitchen table at the dinner table and say, you know, let’s talk about boobs today.

[00:22:11] And you’re going to catch people off guard, but start the conversation and then make it an act of self care. You know, think about a good time when you’re going to do something fun, whether go to brunch with your girls or have a dance party or whatever and make it that’s part of your self care routine.

[00:22:29] Adam Walker: Love that. I love that. Well, Ricki, this has been a great conversation from your immaculate taste in cars to your passion for your daughters and your granddaughters. And honestly, just thank you so much for the advocacy work you’re doing. It’s so inspiring and your story is inspiring and I really appreciate you joining us on the show today.

[00:22:48] Ricki Fairley: Thank you so much. One more thing real quick. You know, we have last in the last year and a half, we have signed up 16, 000 black women for clinical trials. Wow. And it’s not enough, but we need to advance science. And so that’s another focus. That’s right. So if you have an opportunity to participate in a trial, take it.

[00:23:05] Adam Walker: That’s right. That’s right. So important. For the whole community. It’s so important. For the whole community. It really is. That’s right. And thank you for joining us on another episode of the Komen Health Equity Revolution podcast series. We will continue to galvanize the breast cancer community to support multiple populations experiencing breast health inequities to advance and achieve breast health equity for all.

[00:23:27] Because ending breast cancer needs all of us. To learn more about health equity at Susan G Komen, please visit

[00:23:42] Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G. Komen. For more episodes, visit realpink. komen. org and for more on breast cancer, visit komen. org. Make sure to check out at Susan G. Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter at AJ Walker or on my blog, adamjwalker.

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