It was a Friday afternoon when celebrity chef Sandra Lee was wrapping up a shining moment in her career: being photographed for “People Magazine’s Most Beautiful” issue. It was the pinnacle of her week, which had started with a scare. Just two days earlier, following a routine mammogram, she underwent a surgical biopsy to address abnormalities found on her scan.
But that was behind her. Instead, she was determined to enjoy the impressive opportunity from People, yet another accomplishment in her acclaimed career as an author, TV personality, philanthropist, and Editor-in-Chief of Sandra Lee Magazine and sandralee.com. After the shoot finished, Lee jumped in a cab with her best friend, ready to celebrate over dinner.
Then her phone rang.
“I hate to tell this to you over the phone but you have cancer,” Lee’s doctor said.
Lee was diagnosed with DCIS, the most common pre-malignant breast lesion with over 60,000 women diagnosed each year. While not all DCIS will develop into invasive cancer, it is difficult to predict which DCIS lesions will become invasive. Therefore, DCIS is often treated aggressively.
“Even though everyone tries to tell you, ‘You’re good, they caught it early, you’re going to be fine,’ that’s not what’s going through your head,” Lee said.
After discussing her options with her doctor Lee decided to undergo a double mastectomy.
“When your body has that kind of surgery, it’s massive,” Lee said. The major surgery was followed by complications.
She contracted a post-operative infection that required additional surgery. Now nearly two years later, she continues to feel the effects.
“I had a lot of setbacks,” Lee said. “Right now I’m working to get my immune system stabilized and back to normal.”
While she finds solace in spending time with family, friends and her pets, living in remission has its challenges.
“It crosses my brain all the time. Will it come back today? Or today? Or today? It’s really hard not to feel that way,” she said describing her fear of reoccurrence.
It’s this candor that Lee’s fans appreciate – and the very reason why she didn’t want her experience to be kept private.
“Throughout my entire career I’ve pretty much been an open book,” she said.
This includes sharing stories of her childhood where she grew up in poverty with a physically abusive mother. This left Lee to become the primary caregiver to her siblings, relying on food stamps and welfare checks to feed them – an experience that later spurred her remarkable success.
“For me to withhold my breast cancer diagnosis would have been disingenuous,” she said. “My fan base and I have had a strong connected relationship. I take the responsibility of being their friend, advocate and activist to heart."
After attending college and culinary school, Lee soon developed a successful product line and later became a celebrity chef hosting two Food Network shows. To date, Lee has authored 27 books and developed culinary shows airing in 63 countries.
Since going public with her diagnosis and treatment, Lee has jumped into action. With the help of longtime partner Governor Andrew Cuomo, a new piece of breast cancer legislation was passed in June to improve early detection and access to breast cancer care across New York State. To celebrate the landmark bill, Cuomo and Lee participated in a Breast Cancer Ride on a custom Harley Davidson that was later auctioned off for $18,000 to benefit BCRF.
“When Sandy was diagnosed, she fortunately caught it early and used her story to spread the word that getting screened can truly make a lifetime of difference,” Cuomo said at the time.
The bill not only highlighted the importance of early detection but also the ability for both sides of the aisle to collaborate for a cause that impacts everyone.
“It’s unbelievable how many people this disease touches,” Lee said. “It doesn’t discriminate. It goes after all of us.”
It’s for this reason Lee continues to feel compelled to use her voice in the breast cancer community. On February 9, she will be hosting BCRF’s Palm Beach Hot Pink Luncheon & Symposium, which expects to raise more than $700,000 for research this year.
“I think when you have a disease it’s your responsibility to share all the information you can with as many people as you can,” she said. “Hopefully you can affect change in someone else’s life and even save their life.”