Photos courtesy HBO
When bestselling author, television star, and food guru Sandra Lee was diagnosed with cancer, her first reaction was more aggravation than anguish. “My initial experience with breast cancer was annoyance because October’s about Halloween, and I am Sandra Lee! Everything was not black and orange, which, to me, is just wrong,” says Lee with a laugh, referring to the pink breast-cancer paraphernalia that soon surrounded her. “Now, I’m obviously all for the pink campaigns: I’m part of the BCRF [Breast Cancer Research Foundation] family, and I’m a spokesperson for Stand Up To Cancer.”
Following her 2015 diagnosis, Lee would undergo a double mastectomy, as well as a range of treatment and rehabilitation procedures, coming out on the other side cancer-free. “I decided that I would be as aggressive with cancer as cancer was going to be with me,” she says of the decision. Lee has since dedicated much of her time to supporting cancer awareness and fundraising with longtime partner and New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
The harrowing experience also spawned a documentary titled RX: Early Detection — A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, which originally premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will debut on HBO October 8. As for how the documentary got off the ground, it was largely serendipity. Just prior to the diagnosis, Lee founded her own production company and hired Emmy-winning producer Cathy Chermol Schrijver to help run it. “Cathy was supposed to come to work on a Monday, and the Friday before that, I was diagnosed,” says Lee.
It was a desire to aid women in a similar predicament that spurred Lee to go ahead with the project. “I went online, and I tried to look for what I was going to experience,” recalls Lee. “What does it mean for your family? What does it mean for you? What does the process look like, and what do you need to know? None of that existed the way I wanted to see it, so I decided to create it myself.”
The filming was a no-frills operation which, according to Lee, made the piece all that much more authentic. “We shot everything — we even had cameras in the operating room. There was no cinematographer, no lighting, no hair and makeup. It was just this tiny, lit movie camera that looked like it was from the early ’90s and tape from Best Buy. No kidding.”
The documentary itself, which runs about 40 minutes, offers a surprisingly in-depth look at Lee’s travails. “You get the whole story, and you see it day by day,” says Lee. “You see us in our houses; you see me in my apartment in the city; you see my sister come and our conversations; and you know you’re on this journey with us,” notes Lee. “Whether you have already been through [cancer] or are newly diagnosed, or will go through it in the future, it’s a great tool. That’s what I intended to create: a vehicle for information that did not exist for me, which I wanted to exist for other women.”
For Lee, the victory was just another hard-won achievement in a life full of them. The star went from a tumultuous, underprivileged youth to founding one of QVC’s most successful products and soon commanding an army of fans for Food Network hits like Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee and Sandra’s Money Saving Meals. She has also released 25 books and is the winner of a Daytime Emmy.
“My whole life has been about how you take really bad, challenging situations and turn them into something good,” explains Lee. “How can your glass be half full? How can you make this better for someone else, even if it’s not great for you? That’s what I want to do.”
As if to make up for lost time, Lee is also hosting a new Food Network Halloween show this month. “It’s called Haunted Gingerbread Showdown. It’s wonderful, and I’m hanging on as the Halloween girl!” exclaims Lee. “It’s a competition show, a four-week series, where these incredible artist-meet-bakers take something that is typically known as a Christmas classic and turn it into a Halloween adventure with characters and scenes. It’s really a must-watch.”
When she isn’t making merry on television, Lee is deeply thankful for her life in Mount Kisco. “I spend as much time as possible there,” shares Lee. “Life is so precious in Westchester. It’s the birds, the animals, the turtles, the deer. I can’t help but give them something to eat; I don’t even pick my apples, so their babies have food.”
This intense compassion extends to all people Lee feels she is in a place to aid with her new documentary. “I think there are so many women who are embarrassed or ashamed by the fact that they had breast cancer, and I just think it’s really important that we all help one another,” she says. “It is our job to make this life as good as it can be, as productive as it can be, and any information I can gift to someone else to make their lives happier and healthier, I believe it’s my obligation to do so.”