Sandra Lee: her fight with cancer and the love that helped her heal
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.
DISCOVERING TRUE STRENGTH
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.
A PURPOSE IN PAIN
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