The TV chef, subject of the new documentary short ‘RX Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee,’ advocates for early cancer detection at Tribeca
This is what comes in between.
The documentary short “RX Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee,” which debuted at Sundance and had its New York premiere Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles the television chef’s breast cancer journey from diagnosis to recovery in raw, unsparing detail. Packed with tears, wry humor and graphic surgery scenes, the Cathy Chermol Schrijver-directed HBO doc is an attempt to demystify breast cancer — and save lives along the way.
“There was absolutely nothing online that shows you what it is that you’re in for if you make this decision — there’s no information,” Lee, who underwent a double mastectomy, said of her diagnosis during a post-screening Q&A moderated by ABC anchor Amy Robach. “It is these women, a lot of them young, saying, ‘I have breast cancer.’ … Then the next thing you see is these women saying, ‘Hey, I got reconstruction and I look great.’ But there is nothing in between.”
And so the 40-minute-long “RX Early Detection” begins with the Emmy-winning Food Network star, famous for her “semi-homemade” approach to cooking, receiving her diagnosis on March 27, 2015 after a routine mammogram. It follows her through the maddening search for a cause on doctor visits; the mammograms; the decision to pursue an aggressive treatment; a double mastectomy that May; spontaneous crying; headaches and coughing; re-hospitalization for an infection in August; and Lee’s eventual cancer-free status, which she announced two days after appearing at the 2015 Emmys.
By her side through the ordeal are her loyal sister, Kimber Lee, and her longtime partner, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who reminds her pre-mastectomy that she’s “a beautiful lady from the inside out.”
“My sister’s a very strong person, and she’s usually in control of her situation, so this process really taught me that she is just like the rest of us,” Kimber Lee said during the Q&A. “We’re all at the mercy of what happens to us.”
“Sandy was so internally strong through the most difficult circumstance,” added Cuomo, who also attended Thursday’s screening. “And the ultimate strength was then turning the negative to the positive, which is what I respect so much about what she did. The positive was, ‘Let me take this experience, as terrible as it is, and find a way to do good for other people.’”
Lee has become an advocate for early detection, pointing out that around 85% of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease. After all, “cancer does not discriminate,” said Robach, who underwent a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy after receiving her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2013. (Breast cancer, aside from skin cancer, is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in U.S. women; about 12.4% of them will develop invasive breast cancer during their lives.) Following his girlfriend’s cancer treatment, the governor signed legislation eliminating insurance copays for mammograms and requiring hospitals and clinics to offer extended evening and weekend hours.
But the film, which will air on HBO in October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, “isn’t just about breast cancer,” said its main subject — it’s about cancer, the No. 2 leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease. And early detection of whatever cancer you have, Lee added, “is the only way you can save your life.”
“If you feel something, go get it checked … Be neurotic about your health. If you’re going to be neurotic about something, it should be that,” she said. “And if you’re going to invest your money in something, invest it in your health care. Because once it’s too far, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. You cannot buy more time.”
Lee, a supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Susan G. Komen, also urged audience members to donate to groups fighting cancer. “Support those organizations — the ones that do the research, the ones that help the people who don’t have — as generously as you can,” she said. “We all have money in this room; we have all the means in this room. Put your money to those means, because that is how you’re going to save your own family one day.”
“I think it’s so important for all of us to remember that it can happen to anyone,” Robach wrapped up the talk. “We have to take care of each other, and we have to take care of ourselves.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved