Known as the star of Food Network’s “Semi-Homemade Cooking” and as the longtime partner of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sandra Lee has courageously and unselfishly shared a candid and intimate look into her battle with breast cancer in an HBO documentary set to air this fall.
Lee’s hope is to make as many people as possible aware of screening and early detection and to let women benefit from her experience and perhaps even help them through their own tribulations.
The documentary, “RX: Early Detection—A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee,” premieres October 8 on HBO. I spoke in depth with Lee regarding her journey, why she decided to make the documentary and why the laws in this country must be changed.
I think that no one really thinks they are going to get cancer until they get it.
Well, there are blood tests and markers that they can put on you. You can monitor yourself. I’m on them now. You learn a lot. I am glad that you do these interviews, because you were probably more enlightened than most people are. I was oblivious. We don’t have it in our family; why the hell would I get it? There would be absolutely no reason why I would get it. So you find out that it’s the environment. Every single doctor will tell you that. There is not one doctor that I have interviewed that won’t tell you that. They don’t know what it is in the environment, but they know that it is a combination of things in our environment that are changing our cells.
I’m sure the environment has a lot to do with it.
My favorite question of all is: Did you change your diet? Do you finally eat healthy? I feel like saying, “Excuse me, I’ve always eaten healthy.” When it comes to the food pyramid, I eat exactly what that the pyramid is, between the meat and the eggs and the vegetables. What people don’t focus on is you’re eating that pyramid, but where is that food sourced from? Within that pyramid, what are the 497 pesticides—and I can give you that number, because it’s a real number—that are found on our fruits and vegetables? What is the hormone that they do not allow in Britain and the European Union, in Japan, in Australia, in Canada, that we are putting in our meat?
So I love these people who ask, “Are you semi-homemaking it anymore?” Oh, yes, I’m semi-homemaking it. I’m just very thoughtful that with everything I do, I know what the source is.
When you go into the supermarket and buy food that says it’s organic, is it really organic?
You have to be very thoughtful when these major organic grocery stores are bringing in their organics from China. What does that mean? Locally grown is always going to be the best. You really have to temper back all meat supplies; you really have to pull back on that.
Your HBO documentary regarding your breast cancer experience will shortly be aired. What role did you have?
I was the producer and Cathy Chermol Schrijver was the director, but really what happened was, I was starting a production company. I was diagnosed on a Friday, after a beautiful day of a beautiful photo shoot. Just the most beautiful hair and makeup and lighting in the world. When you walk off saying, I’m 48 years old and I still got it, life is good. So I walked off the set, and the doctor called me and said, “You have three different areas in one breast, all of them unrelated, and all of them malignant. You have breast cancer, and I didn’t want you to go through the weekend not knowing.” My best friend Jeffrey, my soulmate, was sitting next to me in a cab and burst out into tears. I just sat there stunned. When I hear bad news and I don’t know how to digest it, I slowly just stop. The doctor said I have a little bit of time, because it’s in the early stage, but you don’t have a lot of time, so we are going to have to figure out what to do. I decided I’d have to be as aggressive with cancer as cancer was aggressive with me. All of the doctors agreed, even the most conservative ones said, “If you were my wife, you would be getting a mastectomy.” So what you see in this documentary is me really going from all the doctor’s appointments. What we had was a little handheld camera. This is shot how documentaries used to be filmed. There is no lighting, no cinematography, there is no audio packs, there is none of that. It’s on a tiny little camera until we get into the hospital. Once we get into the operating room, we have real cameras in the operating room. So I walked to the operating room, because I wasn’t getting on a gurney into the operating room. I walked in with my head held high.
You feel like they’re going to hollow out the inside of your chest, because they are. When you lay down, what you are thinking is, am I going to wake up? So I get on the table, and Andrew had his face right in my face. They put me to sleep while he was talking to me, and that is what it is. You see all of it. Andrew wanted to be in the operating room the entire time, but they actually had to tell him to physically please leave, which he does. It was only Andrew and my sister, and that was like my team taking care of me.
The reason that you see it all is this: I couldn’t find it for myself. There was nothing online. There was nothing I could find that would show me what it meant to get a mastectomy. Every single doctor, even though they have a different thing that they contribute, nobody gives you all the information in one sitting. There is an epidemic for women in their 30s and 40s. There is an epidemic, and every doctor will tell you that. There is an epidemic of diagnoses—through the roof. But nobody tells you what it looks like or shows you. It’s too intense. There is no way to harness that amount of information without doing what I did. That’s why I’ve chosen to do it. What’s interesting is I was on tour at the time, launching a product line. So I had to go on to “Wendy Williams” and “Good Morning America” and “Steve Harvey” knowing that when I got off that set I was secretly walking into a doctor’s appointment, dealing with breast cancer. So you see these transitions, and I think it will be helpful for people going through the process to understand how they get through their daily lives. If I can do it in front of cameras, you can do it when you go to work.
That is going to be epic.
You also see what it is like to walk out of the hospital in front of a wall of media. Not just for me, but for Andrew, and how intense that can be. And again, if I can do this, you can do anything. I wanted you to see exactly what it means. Then I got an infection. So I had to sit home for three months.
For me to sit home for three months and do nothing is awful. So I sat home and tried to let my body heal as much as it could. I was patient, and that was another big lesson for me, because I have the patience of a gnat. I read 27 books … and dozens and dozens of television shows. So you just see the full journey.
That’s some journey.
Then you see Andrew change the laws. This is the kicker. The laws need to change in all the other states. We have a law in New York that’s called The No Excuses Law. What it does for you is this: There were a couple of reasons why people don’t going to get early screening. If you don’t have insurance, there were free clinics, so you’re good. If you do have insurance, there is a deductible. So if you think about your co-pay or your deductible, let’s say you have $900. That could help pay my rent. It could put heat in the house for my kids. It could feed my children. I’m going to go get a screening annually that may or may not turn into something, or I can feed my kids. Which do you choose?
I always think of my kids.
Every woman would. So what we do is we require the insurance companies to pay the entire copay or deductible. There is absolutely no expense at all from screening one to anything after that. Nothing. It costs you nothing. Get your butt in there! The second thing is time. People don’t have time to get screened with a one-hour lunch. I go to work from 9 to 5, and then I have to get my kids. I have to feed them. I have to do homework. I don’t have time to sit in a doctor’s office and get screened for 2 1/2 hours. I don’t have time. So what we do in this state, we leave certain hospitals and clinics open in the evenings and on the weekends to accommodate your schedule. So now there’s no expense, and we accommodate your time. There is no excuse not to get screened. Early detection gives you the best chance at a long life. So Andrew created the bill, passed the law, and my job now is to go out from state to state and try to get it put on. … That is what I’m doing. That way no more beautiful gay boys lose the women they love.