Since being declared cancer free in May of 2015, Lee has become an advocate for early detection, stressing that over 85% of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease.
October is referred to in the United States as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of the annual campaign dedicated to raising awareness of the disease, Sandra Lee’s documentary short - “RX Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee” - is filled with wry humor, tears, and graphic surgery scenes, Director Cathy Chermol Schrijver attempts to reveal the portrayal of breast cancer from one woman’s raw, intimate and honest perspective.
The 40-minute documentary, which had its premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, reveals the Emmy-award winning TV chef’s brave and grueling journey with breast cancer from diagnosis to recovery. Lee does not shy away from disclosing what it is really like to live with cancer and all of the important decisions that one has to make in regards to their health. “No doctor can tell you everything you need to know. The biggest thing I can do is really show people what it looks like to go through this so they walk in with open eyes—which I did not have” she said.
Capturing the in-between
In March of 2015, at the age of 48, Lee was diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) after a routine mammogram. Initially, she kept her diagnosis hidden from the public eye and only told her close family members and her longtime partner, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. She coped by doing what she knew best – focusing on work. “It was crazy for weeks. I would leave a set with hair and makeup and go to a doctor’s office and interview him about treatment options and do my tests” said Lee.
Ultimately, she decided to undergo a double mastectomy, even though the cancer had been found in only one breast. “I didn’t want to take any chances. My cancer was in three separate places, and there was the possibility it could come back in the other breast” said Lee. While she was hoping to share her diagnosis in her own time, it was leaked to the press, forcing her to go public far earlier than she had wanted.
As Lee began to cope with her new reality, she started to understand how aggressive cancer is and decided to strike back just as aggressively. It was then that colleagues of the famous TV chef and lifestyle expert suggested that she document her journey with breast cancer. At first, Lee was hesitant, but when she realized that revealing herself in a new light could help others dealing with similar situations, the choice was simple.
Over the next nine months, one camera would follow her throughout her frustrating search for a cause during multiple doctor visits; her mammograms; her courageous decision to undergo a double mastectomy; impulsive crying, headaches, and coughing; re-hospitalization for an infection; and her eventual cancer-free status. “There was absolutely nothing online that shows you what it is that you’re in for if you make this decision — there’s no information. It is these women, a lot of them young, saying, ‘I have breast cancer.’ … Then the next thing you see is these women saying, ‘Hey, I got reconstruction and I look great.’ But there is nothing in between” said Lee.
The footage that was shot would also include many precious moments with her sister, Kimber Lee, and her longtime partner. “It’s so difficult for women to go through this on so many levels—it takes such courage. It changes your perspective and it’s a life-changer. A man’s predisposition is ‘how do I fix this; how do I make it better’ but you’re powerless. It’s frightening and disarming to realize that your only role is to be supportive” said Cuomo.
Following his girlfriend’s cancer treatment, Cuomo signed legislation to improve access to breast cancer screening by extending hospital and clinic hours to include evenings and weekends, as well as by eliminating some insurance barriers for mammograms. “An average co-pay for a breast exam is $150 and that’s a deterrent for many women. We eliminated all co-pays, all costs are absorbed and all follow-ups are covered. Sandy turned a negative into a positive and said ‘let me take this experience and find a way to do good for other people.’ She was committed to finding the possible silver linings that can come from this” he said.
Demystifying breast cancer and saving lives along the way
Since being declared cancer free in May of 2015, Lee has become an advocate for early detection, stressing that over 85% of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease. She explained that her documentary is not just about breast cancer, but about cancer in general – the number 2 leading cause of death in the United States following heart disease. And the fact that luck does not matter, but rather early detection is the only thing that is saving lives. “If you feel something, go get it checked … Be neurotic about your health. If you’re going to be neurotic about something, it should be that. And if you’re going to invest your money in something, invest it in your health care. Because once it’s too far, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. You cannot buy more time” said Lee.
Lee is also a supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Susan G. Komen. She has spoken in front of breast cancer groups on a frequent basis, urging audience members to donate on behalf of the individuals battling cancer. “Support those organizations — the ones that do the research, the ones that help the people who don’t have — as generously as you can. We all have money in this room; we have all the means in this room. Put your money to those means, because that is how you’re going to save your own family one day” she said.
Today, Lee is happy and in good health. Cancer is no longer taking over her life and she is getting back to herself. “I’m healed as much as anybody who’s gone through this can be, and I will continue to support and fight alongside my sisters. Once you’re in this family, you’re in for life” she said.