Millions of fans have turned to Sandra Lee for advice about cooking, entertaining, decorating and living life with style and fun. She seemed to have it all with popular TV shows, best-selling books, and a long-time relationship with live-in love New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Then her life took a devastating downturn when a routine mammogram showed she had a fast-moving, virulent form of breast cancer. One week after the frightening news, she underwent a double mastectomy. Then she faced an uphill battle for treatment and recovery.
Under pressure to learn more about her dreaded disease, she sought guidance and background. She found a lot less information than she’d expected. That’s when Lee decided to use her personal experience to help others. She turned her trials with cancer into a short documentary, Rx: Early Detection — A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee, which will air on HBO during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
Jeanne Wolf: It’s been almost two years since you first got your diagnosis. How did everything you went through change you?
Sandra Lee: I had a real wake-up call that life is limited. Life is too short, and we all need to really cherish and love one another. I think that I’m even more cemented in that philosophy than I was before.
JW: Were you careful about getting routine mammograms before they discovered your cancer?
SL: Once I skipped a whole year and didn’t go in for two. If that had been the time of my cancer, it would have been a big problem because it was moving so fast after the diagnosis. Within six weeks, it was everywhere. My grandfather always said I had an angel on my shoulder. I’m very grateful that that angel told me to go get my screening.
JW: What helped you as you realized what you had to face surgery and a difficult recovery?
SL: I am very good at compartmentalizing. You almost have to look at yourself as a patient as opposed thinking of yourself as the person who was diagnosed. You think of yourself like you would the person that you love the most, your sister, your daughter, your best friend. If you handle yourself that way, then you will have a different experience and a different strength. You must be as aggressive you can, because cancer is such an aggressive disease, and you have to fight aggression with aggression.
“My diagnosis was a real wake-up call. Life is too short and we all need to really cherish and love one another.”
JW: The emotional battle is as intense as the physical struggle. Your public knows you as optimistic and sunny. In the film, we see you cry.
SL: I have no problem being weak sometimes. We’re all weak. When I see myself cry in the documentary, it makes me cry again because I normally don’t cry. I have to either get so angry or so sad and hurt. But you should let the emotion out. You can’t just ball up a diagnosis and stuff it in a corner and act like it’s not there.
JW: We know so much, and yet so little, about cancer. Where did you go for info?
SL: I kept searching, talking to doctors, going on the internet, looking everywhere. There’s no one place you can get all you want to know. It’s just impossible. There’s so much conflicting material out there.
I went to the internet and I couldn’t find one person who had documented what I was going to have to go through. It’s important for you and your family to know that in advance. Filming the documentary was an opportunity to do some research. I think that this documentary is going to be a reference source for women. I want it to be a tool for families to get information that maybe they didn’t have before. It is going to be a real window into what will happen during treatment.
JW: You had wonderful physicians and nurses, but you found out that it takes even more.
SL: I was very lucky because I had my sister, Kimber, with me the whole time. We had wonderful professionals, but she really made all the difference in the world. When you go home, hopefully the people who are taking care of you are the ones who love you. It’s important that they have the knowledge this film will give.
JW: You’ve been in a long relationship with Andrew Cuomo, who is, of course, the governor of New York. How did he help?
SL: A very important thing is going to come out of this, and it’s the reason why I know God gave me cancer. I have a partner who is capable of changing the laws in New York. Andrew did just that. He teamed with a politician on the other side of the aisle whose daughter had died of cancer. She was beautiful, married with two kids. I met her before she passed away. These two men worked together and were able to get a law passed. It’s called “No Excuses” because the two primary reasons people don’t go in to get their annual checkup is that they don’t have the time or they don’t have the money. The new law requires insurance companies to pay the deductibles and the copays, so there is no expense. And it requires clinics and hospitals to stay open later in the evening and on weekends. So, when you say, “I don’t have time ’cause I only have an hour for lunch and then I’ve got to be with my kids,” it takes away that excuse.
JW: You’ve kept your life with Andrew private, but in the film, we see sensitive moments where he’s trying to comfort you. Was that exposure hard on him?
SL: It was hard because I think he felt powerless, even helpless. So what he did was use his power to make darn sure that other people don’t have to wait for a checkup.
JW: Did you expect Andrew to stand by your side the way he did?
SL: Of course. What I didn’t expect was my sister being so strong. Normally, I’m the one who’s doing and providing and creating. And it’s the first time my sister was really in that position. Andrew has been in that position in my life since we met 13 years ago.
JW: You had a double mastectomy. Losing our breasts can be traumatizing.
SL: It is an amputation. That’s what it is. But I am comfortable with who I am and how I look. You must be happy in your head. Beauty isn’t about your exterior. Beauty is about when you think about yourself and ask, “What did you provide? How did you help others? How did you give back?”
That’s in Andrew’s DNA, too. He’s his father’s son. He handled this with grace and with love and with dignity and with thoughtfulness. That was a really important part of my healing and being comfortable with myself afterward.
This article is an expanded version of the interview that appears in the September/October 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.