San­dra Lee: her fight with can­cer and the love that helped her heal

First For Women - - Contents -

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, celebrity chef San­dra Lee, 52, talks can­didly to FIRST about her fight with breast can­cer, how the love of her sis­ter and other fam­ily ad­vo­cates helped her heal and how she’s now turn­ing life’s “messes” into a beau­ti­ful mis­sion to help all women live their health­i­est lives

Shuf­fling down the hos­pi­tal cor­ri­dor, armin-arm with her sis­ter Kimmy, San­dra Lee was hit with a wave of emo­tion too pow­er­ful to con­trol. Tears streamed down her cheeks, dot­ting her blue hos­pi­tal gown. Crum­pling into a nearby couch, San­dra ac­cepted a tis­sue from Kimmy, del­i­cately folded it and held it against her face like a mask. In the power of that si­lence, Kimmy sat down and rubbed San­dra’s back, un­til fi­nally telling her older sis­ter, “Honey, I think you’re griev­ing… I’m griev­ing too.”

It was two days af­ter dou­ble mas­tec­tomy surgery for the TV star, who had been di­ag­nosed in 2015 with an ag­gres­sive form of breast can­cer. San­dra still had a lot of painful days ahead, but she knew she was in good hands sit­ting be­side her sis­ter, whom she calls “above a best friend.”

“Kimmy makes ev­ery­body in­stantly feel com­fort­able and ac­cepted and non-judged,” San­dra says. “That’s a rare qual­ity in any­one, much less to get to have in your sis­ter.” But lit­tle did San­dra know how much this life­long friend­ship would strengthen her dur­ing the days to come as she fought the big­gest bat­tle of her life.


Six weeks ear­lier, San­dra’s world was turned up­side down when she got a phone call from her doc­tor say­ing tests had re­vealed three ma­lig­nant tu­mors in her breast. “I was so shell­shocked, I don’t even think I moved,” San­dra shares. “That’s just how fast life turns. It turns on a dime.”

Reel­ing from the news, San­dra called her long­time sweet­heart, An­drew Cuomo, gov­er­nor of New York. Then she phoned her sis­ter. “Kimmy im­me­di­ately burst into tears,” San­dra re­calls. But to­gether, the two women pooled their strength and planned the next cru­cial moves.

San­dra de­cided to have a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, a de­ci­sion in­flu­enced by what she calls all the “sis­ters who have come be­fore us”—or the women through­out his­tory who have given their lives to help find a cure. “It was about hon­or­ing them and not hav­ing their lives be in vain,” she ex­plains. “I felt that I needed to be as ag­gres­sive with can­cer as can­cer had been with them… and was go­ing to be with me.”

In the re­cov­ery room fol­low­ing the five-hour surgery, where doc­tors found more can­cer than they’d ex­pected, San­dra wres­tled with an un­com­fort­able oxy­gen mask. And it was Kimmy who si­lently held the tubes in place for an hour so her sis­ter could rest.

The next few days brought hor­ri­ble chain­saw-like pain, bruis­ing and harsh re­ac­tions to med­i­ca­tions.

“Even if she wasn’t my sis­ter, I’d still want her to be my best friend.”

—San­dra Lee of her baby sis­ter, Kim­ber Lee

“The morn­ings are the most ter­ri­ble,” San­dra re­calls. “You wake up with a headache like you can’t be­lieve. It’s like your head is go­ing to ex­plode straight off your body.” But Kimmy was there for it all, pack­ing her sis­ter’s fa­vorite pil­low­case, brush­ing her blond hair, help­ing her to the bath­room and of­fer­ing words of com­fort.

Yet Kimmy was also able to draw out her sis­ter’s hu­mor like no other. The women quipped about hos­pi­tal cur­tains and lasagna recipes. And when Kimmy helped San­dra with the in­ti­mate task of emp­ty­ing her sur­gi­cal drains—bot­tles of bloody fluid— Kimmy joked, “Wouldn’t this look so yummy if you were a vam­pire?” As they laughed, they dis­cov­ered that hu­mor was the first step in healing.


Af­ter a week, San­dra re­turned home with Kimmy by her side. But re­ly­ing so heav­ily on oth­ers was a vul­ner­a­ble new place for the al­ways-ca­pa­ble chef. San­dra kneeled on the floor as Kimmy washed her hair over the tub and re­al­ized, This is what sis­ters are for—sis­ters and best friends—to lov­ingly wash your hair.

The scene turned se­ri­ous one night when

San­dra was rushed to the hos­pi­tal with an in­fec­tion, re­quir­ing an­other surgery. San­dra rolled her eyes and thought, “Se­ri­ously?! Why is this hap­pen­ing?” But she quickly switched to her trade­mark op­ti­mism and asked her­self, “Okay, show me the pur­pose.”

From that point on, San­dra fol­lowed the ad­vice of her friend Robin Roberts—the Good Morn­ing Amer­ica an­chor and can­cer sur­vivor—who al­ways said, “Take your mess and make it your mis­sion.” And San­dra knew what she needed to do once her health sta­bi­lized: “My mis­sion be­came to save as many lives as pos­si­ble.”

Once again, San­dra drew strength from the strong women in her life. “I had gen­er­ous role mod­els, like my grand­mother who raised me, who changed my per­spec­tive on how we can give back.” San­dra vowed, “In

100 years, no one is go­ing to re­mem­ber that I had this ex­pe­ri­ence un­less I do some­thing with it that’s help­ful to other women.”

That’s why San­dra was proud when New York be­came the first state to pass The No Ex­cuses Law, which en­sures all women have ac­cess to free screen­ings for early de­tec­tion of breast can­cer. “Ev­ery­one on this planet right now who is a woman is my sis­ter, and I want to en­cour­age each of them not to be afraid, to get screened. It can save your life; I am grate­ful it saved mine.”

San­dra is cer­tainly grate­ful for her own sis­ter, who now has a 50% higher risk of get­ting breast can­cer. “It was some­thing we went through to­gether. It was very bond­ing,” she ad­mits. “I’m five years older so much of our lives she needed me. For the first time, I ab­so­lutely needed her. It showed me how much we need that sup­port.”

Now San­dra, who is can­cer-free, wants all women to feel as sup­ported through their health chal­lenges. “I wouldn’t have got­ten through it with­out An­drew and Kimmy, but an ad­vo­cate doesn’t have to be some­one re­lated to you, it just needs to be some­one who un­der­stands what you need,” she says. “You’re not alone, we’re all in this to­gether. Our pur­pose is to be there for our sis­ters—we’re all sis­ters first!”

“I’m so grate­ful Kimmy was by my side the whole way—she helped me win my bat­tle with can­cer,” San­dra Lee (left) says of her younger sis­ter Kim­ber Lee (right)

Kimmy (left) com­fort­ing older sis­ter San­dra (right) af­ter San­dra’s dou­ble mas­tec­tomy in 2015

From left: Kim­ber Lee, Good Morn­ing Amer­ica’s Amy Robach, San­dra Lee and ac­tress Ju­dith Light see­ing San­dra’s Rx: Early De­tec­tion at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val in 2018

“I don’t want any­body to have to go through breast can­cer, but we need to catch it early. De­tec­tion is ev­ery­thing,” says San­dra

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