Breast Cancer Survivor
Sharing Compassion & Knowledge Along the Journey
When Emmy-winning TV host and best-selling author Sandra Lee received a ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) diagnosis at age 48, she immediately knew it would be a journey she wouldn’t take alone. She documented her experience for HBO to show openly and honestly how it feels to face breast cancer, from diagnosis through recovery. Today, she is cancer-free, and she credits early detection. As a result, she has worked hard to create new legislation that makes preventive screening more accessible to women everywhere.
The phone call that changed Sandra’s life was completely unexpected.
“I wasn’t having issues, hadn’t felt any lumps or bumps. I’d just gone in for my annual mammogram,” she said. “The results of the scan and follow-up tests showed ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early-stage breast cancer.”
According to Sandra, the timing of her diagnosis aligned with an opportunity to educate herself and prepare for what was ahead.
“I got the news on a Friday,” she explained, “so I had all weekend to absorb it. Coincidentally, the Ken Burns and Barak Goodman documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies was on television all weekend. It chronicles the history of cancer and the progress that’s been made over the years.”
She watched the documentary four times and found it not only powerful, but empowering.
“The first time, I bawled. The second, I cried. The third, I took notes. By the fourth, I knew the treatment path I wanted to take.”
Next came extensive research on her part
“I was fortunate to have excellent medical care available in New York City, and I reached out to friends, and friends of friends, who’d had breast cancer. Their personal recommendations were comforting. I interviewed doctors and found the right physician for me.”
After discussing the characteristics of her diagnosis, her family medical history and her personal preferences, together they developed a treatment plan that included a bilateral mastectomy.
Always one to pass on information that she finds informative or engaging, whether it’s about a recipe, gardening or hair and makeup, Sandra felt strongly about sharing this experience, too — while it was happening.
“Too often we don’t hear stories like this until the storyteller is no longer with us. Why would I not share something this important while I am still here? I felt it was almost a disservice to the medical community and the survivors who came before me not to share it right then. I envisioned it offering hope to women who were also going through breast cancer and didn’t know where to turn.”
In Rx Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee, an HBO documentary, she offers an insider’s view to having breast cancer.
“The camera was on the whole time, all the way through recovery. Viewers see the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the positive attitude and support that surrounded me; the bad is learning I had cancer and what I went through to figure out how to treat it; and the ugly is the surgery I had. Surgery is never pretty. That’s the reality of it.”
Support from friends and loved ones played a prominent role for Sandra.
“Everyone was incredible, and my sister, Kim, was with me every step of the way. No one gets you like your sister. She went with me to doctor’s appointments and took notes because, honestly, everything was a blur. She would remind me later about what the doctor said, what my options were, etc. Everybody needs a sister or best friend who will be there for them, taking notes or pushing for that hard-to-get appointment.”
Even amid all the support, there were times that Sandra felt isolated.
“I had so many people who loved me, yet at times I still felt very alone,” she admitted. “Due to a very serious infection I developed after surgery, there was a four-month stretch where I didn’t leave the house once. Though I think many people can relate to that feeling because of COVID-19, this felt different. Knowing everyone was in lockdown together somehow made that experience more bearable, but when the world continues to revolve outside your door and you can’t be a part of it, that feels very isolating.
“It made me realize how valuable it is to reach out to people who, for whatever reason, live that way every day — seniors in long-term care facilities who don’t have family or who live at home alone. No one should feel hopeless.”
She realizes how lucky she was to have caught the cancer when she did, and she credits this to keeping up with her regular screenings.
“Early detection is everything, and I’m grateful every day. Because my cancer was caught at an early stage, I had nearly all the treatments available to me.”
Sandra made it her mission to break down the barriers to care that keep women from getting the checkups, such as mammograms, that could be lifesaving. She pushed for New York state legislation that became the most advanced cancer screening program in the country. It provides expanded screening hours at hospitals and clinics, removes insurance barriers and offers paid leave for screenings to all public employees. She kept the effort going by petitioning in other states, some of which have also gotten on board.
Today, Sandra feels healthy, happy and blessed
She tries to live with a bit of grace and hope in her life every day.
“Get rid of excess anxiety or stresses in your life,” she advises. “Life is too short — no matter how long it is.”
True to her character, she took a positive yet aggressive approach right from the get-go. She encourages others who are newly diagnosed to dig deep and do the same in their own way. She offers this advice:
“Take a day or two to let the diagnosis sink in. If you have to cry or scream, do it, but also be gentle and kind to yourself. Then pull up your big girl pants and find a support group of people who’ve had the same diagnosis as you, but remember that no two diagnoses will be the same. Be open to taking advice, and be thoughtful about how you want to proceed. Take your God-given talents of being aggressive and assertive and use them positively to advocate for yourself.
“Just breathe. Now is the time to stop taking care of everyone and everything else. This is where you have to do you."