This Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Survivor Used Her Diagnosis to Reinvent Herself

When faced with a poor prognosis, Ricki Fairley decided to make some changes in her life.  

People who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer can sometimes feel scared and pessimistic, especially considering the five-year survival rate is 17 percent lower for this disease than for all other breast cancers. But for Ricki Fairley, a 60-year-old triple-negative breast cancer survivor, it was an opportunity to reinvent herself. She divorced her husband, sold her home and bought a one-bedroom beachfront condo on the Chesapeake Bay where she now paddleboards on most days.

As we recognize and celebrate the strength of those living with triple-negative breast cancer on Triple-negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day (March 3) and throughout the entire month of March, Fairley wants to help others understand what makes this form of breast cancer different from the others by sharing her journey with the disease.

Why is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day important to you?

We know that Breast Cancer Awareness Month happens each October, but triple-negative breast cancer is special and different. Triple-negative breast cancer is harder to treat than other breast cancers because no targeted therapies can effectively treat it and prevent recurrence. I am African American and know that triple-negative breast cancer disproportionately affects young African-American women. We need to raise awareness of the facts about triple-negative breast cancer and invest in more research.

There’s always something new to keep looking forward to in my life. I feel very blessed to be alive today.

Do you believe that there are misconceptions about triple-negative breast cancer?

People don’t understand it until they are in it. I see helping people understand triple-negative breast cancer better as my purpose, especially in the African American community. I have worked in the Washington D.C. area to help bring in women off the street to get their breasts checked. We call it “Makeovers and Mammograms.” Women just don’t understand the necessity of it until it’s too late and they’re diagnosed with the disease.

How did you learn that you had triple-negative breast cancer?

In 2012, my doctor found a lump under my nipple and performed a biopsy. That led to my diagnosis. When I started Googling triple-negative breast cancer, everything that I found was pretty morbid and negative as well. It was pretty scary at the time. But I believed that God had other plans for me. So I got the best medical care I could and sought out second opinions. I got a double mastectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and then more chemotherapy. It sucked.

How did you remain positive during your treatment?

At the time, my youngest daughter was a sophomore at Dartmouth College. I was determined to see her graduate in 2014. I graduated from Dartmouth, as did my father and my older daughter. My oncologist told me that his other patients with triple-negative breast cancer did not live more than two years after being diagnosed. I just said that I was a survivor, and I was going to beat this. I lived to see not only my youngest daughter graduate college but also my older daughter get married in 2015. And now my oldest daughter is pregnant, so there’s always something new to keep looking forward to in my life. I feel very blessed to be alive today.

DESPITE HER DIAGNOSIS OF TRIPLE-NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER, RICKI FAIRLEY (LEFT) WAS DETERMINED TO SEE HER OLDEST DAUGHTER AMANDA’S (CENTER) WEDDING DAY. HER YOUNGER DAUGHTER HAYLEY (RIGHT) WAS A BRIDESMAID AT HER SISTER’S WEDDING.

DESPITE HER DIAGNOSIS OF TRIPLE-NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER, RICKI FAIRLEY (LEFT) WAS DETERMINED TO SEE HER OLDEST DAUGHTER AMANDA’S (CENTER) WEDDING DAY. HER YOUNGER DAUGHTER HAYLEY (RIGHT) WAS A BRIDESMAID AT HER SISTER’S WEDDING.

How do you feel about the progress being made in triple-negative breast cancer research?

I know the hard work that is being done, and we have the momentum to find preventative treatment. But too many young women are still dying from this disease. My friend was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at the age of 26 and passed away just before she turned 29. That can’t keep happening. If we can raise awareness with women and doctors, maybe we can change the outcomes for patients.

What are your plans for this year’s Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day?

I’m the Board Chair of the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, and we have an aggressive schedule of outreach and fundraisers. The coolest thing that I’ve done so far was getting to ring the Nasdaq stock market closing bell a couple of weeks ago.

BY WEARING PINK SHOES, RICKI FAIRLEY HELPS TO RAISE AWARENESS OF TRIPLE-NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER.

BY WEARING PINK SHOES, TRIPLE-NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR RICKI FAIRLEY HELPS TO RAISE AWARENESS OF TRIPLE-NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER.

I’ll also be planning to wear pink shoes for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day. I was wearing pink cowboy boots when I was diagnosed and wore them until my mastectomy. It makes a statement and helps me talk about it with people that I meet. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t talk with someone new about triple-negative breast cancer. We need to keep that conversation going on Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Day and throughout the year.

To learn more about what makes triple-negative breast cancer different from other breast cancers, read “3 Things You Should Know about Triple-Negative Breast Cancer.”