Why Sandra Lee Documented Her Breast Cancer Experience: "It Will Save Lives"
The lifestyle guru hopes to educate others and change laws with her documentary short 'Rx: Early Detection' as she opens up about keeping the cameras rolling throughout the painful process: "I want to show whatever helps and gives the most information."
Television personality Sandra Lee beat breast cancer in 2015, but she's still fighting to save other women from the disease.
The Daytime Emmy-winning lifestyle guru already has helped to make it easier for women in New York to get breast cancer screenings thanks to a new law (signed in June 2016 by Lee's longtime boyfriend, Empire State Gov. Andrew Cuomo), and she's pushing for similar legislation to be passed in other states and at the federal level.
To raise awareness of her quest, she's shared her own journey in the documentary short Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, which aired on HBO in October and chronicles her diagnosis and treatment, including a double mastectomy.
Lee, 52, and her team, including director Cathy Chermol Schrijver, began filming shortly after Lee was diagnosed, with just a "little camera from the early '90s" and "tiny tapes we got at Best Buy," Lee says. While the footage was initially intended for personal reference, Lee quickly realized that it could help other women facing similar challenges.
"I couldn't believe that no one had filmed or documented their journey," she says of other material available about the disease. "You get the bookends of the journey. You get the 'I'm done. I'm healed. I'm in remission and I'm fine,' And you get the, 'I'm diagnosed with cancer. I have to have treatment.' What happens in between those two things?"
Lee hopes that seeing what her own aggressive course of action entailed will help others who are struggling to determine their own paths. She also hopes the film gives family members a sense of what their "loved one is going through. Here's how to best care for them and here's how to understand emotionally why they may be acting a certain way."
After filming ended, Lee thought she might have enough footage for a documentary; she met with HBO's longtime documentary head Sheila Nevins (who stepped down in early 2018), only to be told, "No, we're not going to do another breast cancer documentary," Lee recalls. But Lee's team persisted, creating a rough version of the doc for Nevins to review.
"Once we put it together and showed her, when it was done, she said, 'I did not expect this, and if you want to do this film, I will do this film with you,'" says Lee. "She helped refine it and make it what it could be and as impactful as it could be."
Lee thought that a short film rather than a feature-length doc would be the best platform to reach a younger audience. "Even though the industry does not view shorts as sexy," she says, "the bottom line is the demographic is younger and younger because that is where the epidemic of new cancer diagnosis is coming from."
The film features emotional moments, including Cuomo comforting Lee before surgery, as well as raw, physical scenes, like the surgery itself — in which viewers see doctors digging through her body — and post-op recovery with her in a weakened, sore state, even having to empty out drains collecting fluid.
But Lee wasn't hesitant to show any of those personal, sometimes unflattering moments, adding that the experience of filming as she was going through a painful, invasive ordeal never became so overwhelming that she wanted to turn the cameras off. "I don't care," she says of her on-camera appearance. "I want to show whatever helps and gives the most information." She adds, "It is naked, it is the truth. And it will save lives."
As Rx: Early Detection has screened at film festivals (including Sundance and Tribeca) and aired on HBO, Lee has heard from women who were motivated to seek treatment after seeing her film.
The doc shows Cuomo talking about the New York law that extended hours and removed insurance barriers for breast cancer screenings. Lee is now speaking to various state and federal officials about similar laws. She hopes awards attention for the doc will increase support for her crusade.
"What the halo of the [Academy's] doc branch would give this film is a platform for me to continue to do this work. It is a very difficult uphill battle when it comes to changing these laws," Lee says. "It's more important than the actual award itself. It's what the award means by way of an entire collection of people getting behind something and saying, 'Enough. Figure it out, Cancer's an epidemic. Frickin' deal with it and find a solution.'"
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.