Dx: Breast Cancer
by Laura Shipp
It was a picture-perfect spring Friday in early 2015, and Food Network chef turned lifestyle guru Sandra Lee had just wrapped up a photo shoot for People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” issue. Still beaming from the honor and feeling, as she puts it, “like a million bucks,” Sandra jumped into the car with her best friend and headed out to dinner to celebrate. That’s when she got “the call” from her doctor. You know the one.
“It was kind of like having an out-of-body experience,” the Emmy-winning television host recounts in a recent interview with Coping magazine. “I called Andrew [Cuomo, New York governor and Sandra’s longtime partner], and I called my sister.”
Sandra had been diagnosed with DCIS – ductal carcinoma in situ, which is a noninvasive cancer contained within the milk ducts of the breast. If left untreated, however, it could morph into invasive breast cancer. She was only 48 years old.
“That weekend, PBS was airing The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer in rotation … so I watched it in rotation. By the end of the weekend, I was pretty clear on what I was going to do,” Sandra says. “I pretty much knew that I wanted to be as aggressive as they were going to let me be.”
Most women with DCIS have breast-conserving surgery, generally lumpectomy followed by radiation. However, after talking with her doctor, Sandra opted for a double mastectomy – complete removal of both her breasts. The surgery went well, and Sandra was declared cancer-free, but she contracted a post-operative infection that led to some complications and an even longer recovery. Still, Sandra says she has no regrets about her choice.
“I decided to get the double mastectomy because I didn’t want to wait and have the percentage of it coming back or developing in the other breast,” says Sandra. Plus, DCIS was found in three separate unrelated areas in Sandra’s breast, which typically warrants a more aggressive treatment approach.
Selecting a treatment plan wasn’t the only big decision Sandra made after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis. Urged on by director Cathy Chermol Schrijver, Sandra decided to film the entire breast cancer journey and recovery process.
“We filmed on a tiny hand-held camera and even had cameras in the operating rooms, as well as through the post-surgical infection,” Sandra says. “We filmed everything. And the reason that we filmed everything is that we thought, if this can help one person get through what this is, we should do it.”
Sandra’s raw footage has been turned into the HBO short documentary Rx: Early Detection – A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, which will be airing on HBO during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, beginning October 8 at 8:00 p.m. ET.
“The documentary is to be used as a tool so everyone can understand exactly what this looks like,” Sandra says. “It’s not pretty, but it will save your life. And it’s not painless; it will be painful even with the earliest of detection. But early detection is the best way to save your life. This is not a guarantee against a metastatic diagnosis later on. But my job [with this documentary] is to help save lives and to give as much information as possible […]so that you can make a smart decision and so your family understands what you’re going through.”
Sandra takes her responsibility as a breast cancer advocate seriously. In addition to sharing her breast cancer journey through this new documentary, she has also taken political action. With help from Governor Cuomo, Sandra was instrumental in getting legislation enacted in the state of New York that makes breast cancer screening more accessible to all women. In addition to extending breast cancer screening hours for certain hospitals and clinics across the state, the legislation Sandra championed also eliminates annual deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance payments for mammograms.
Sandra hopes this legislation will be adopted by other states across the nation. “The pamphlet, the blueprint has been created,” Sandra says. “And other states just need to take it and run with it and pass it in their own states, and you will save lives. That’s what this is about.”
Sandra says she already has big plans for 2019, including pushing for more cancer-related legislation. Right now, though, she says she’s focusing on getting the word out about her HBO documentary and raising awareness of the importance of early detection for breast cancer.
As the conversation wraps up, Sandra leaves us with this advice for anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer: “Deal with it immediately. Be as aggressive as you can immediately. And live your life the best you can in the most authentic way that you can. Whatever that means to you is what it needs to be for you. Life is short, and you need to be as assertive with your health as you can be, as in control of your health as you can be, and as thoughtful with your health as you can be.”
You can learn more about all things Sandra Lee at her website, SandraLee.com.
Rx: Early Detection – A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee will debut on HBO on October 8.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2018.