She’s the self-proclaimed queen of semi-homemade, having become a household name thanks to her popular and long-running Food Network show, Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee. Her cheerful and festive attitude radiated through the TV as she easily decorated for any occasion, and she always made room for “cocktail time.”
Then, everything changed in March 2015 when Lee, now 52, was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine mammogram. A couple of months later she started filming her doctors’ visits as she decided how to proceed with treatment, eventually capturing on camera her double mastectomy, the grueling days that followed in the hospital, her recovery, reconstructive surgery, and subsequent efforts to start raising awareness for early detection.
Those seven months of filming, which produced “stacks and stacks and stacks” of videotapes — they filmed with “a tiny, little, handheld camera… it had to be from the early 1990s,” Lee tells EW — have resulted in Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, premiering Monday on HBO. Intimate, emotional, and important viewing, Lee was filming so she could go back to watch for herself, not knowing while filming what would come of it. But then she wondered…
“I don’t even know if I have a documentary,” she recalls of telling then-HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins. “I have a lot of footage…. I don’t know what’s on [the tapes]. I was drugged out; I could’ve said anything.”
But Nevins encouraged her to edit the video to see what she had.
“I watched it for the first time with Sheila, holding hands with her, and I sobbed through the whole thing,” Lee says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you wanna do this? Because you’ve built a brand on everything being pretty and perfect always.’ But that’s not reality. Reality is, life is messy, and these things happen.”
Making it her mission to show that mess, she’s now able to say that everything she went through was “worth it.”
“I know why I was supposed to go through it. I always believe that we all have a purpose and your goal is to understand what your purpose is. Your goal, as [Good Morning America’s] Robin Roberts [another cancer survivor] states, is to make your mess your mission,” Lee says. “I was raised on welfare and food stamps; I know how to cook everything there is to cook with anything out of the grocery store and stretch a budget like no one else — semi-homemade and money-saving meals. I can decorate on a dime. I can build you a house out of [popsicle] sticks, hot glue, and glitter. I know how to be resourceful, and that’s what I built my career on. I now need to look at what happened to me and how do I make what I did not have accessible and available to other people to better understand how to have a great life and how to save their own lives.”
So Lee has a three-part goal with Early Detection: (1) For people who are recently diagnosed to have a reference for what others have experienced; (2) For families and friends of people fighting cancer to “understand what it looks like and what it is”; and (3) To get laws passed for earlier screenings, which has already happened. In her home state of New York, where her boyfriend, Andrew Cuomo, happens to be governor, it’s already led to legislation allowing easier access to screenings, sometimes at no cost, and requiring insurance companies to cover more post-surgery recovery time in the hospital.
Lee says she watched on rotation the TV documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, executive-produced by famed documentarian Ken Burns, which she came across the weekend she was diagnosed. While it doesn’t, per se, show what it means to be someone fighting the disease, it does provide the history of it — showing the sacrifices made by women, as well as scientists and doctors “dedicating their lives so that we could live today.”
“That sacrifice cannot be disrespected,” she says, which is what has made her want to “be so aggressive.”
While it wasn’t something she would’ve anticipated then, Lee admits she has a new perspective on what she experienced.
“I didn’t realize how irreverent I was being to cancer, and how pissed I was. I was really angry, and it’s kind of reflected when I walk into the operating room,” she explains. “It was time for me to get on the gurney, and I looked at them…. I walked up the corridor — you’re not supposed to walk into the operating room — and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m not a victim.’ And to me, getting on that table when I’m perfectly capable of walking in or to have to sit in a wheelchair to be wheeled out of the hospital to go home — I wasn’t doing either one of those things. I was going to walk with my head help up, and that was my ‘F you, cancer.'”
Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee premieres Oct. 8 on HBO.