Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.

By Shalayne Pulia
Oct 07, 2018 @ 5:00 am
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Whether she’s designing “tablecapes” for Good Morning America or providing home cooks with simple “semi-homemade” recipes on her namesake Food Network TV show, Sandra Lee has a can-do attitude that’s contagious. Determined from an early age, she went from living off food stamps as a preteen to building a multimillion-dollar food and lifestyle empire all on her own. But in 2015, after a breast-cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy, the vivacious star was forced to hit pause. “I used to be upset that October had pink in it [for breast-cancer awareness],” Lee says. “I wanted it to be orange and black [to match Halloween]. Shame on me, but now I get it, and I want to make sure my sisters live their longest lives.”

Lee’s personal ethos of “pick up your big-girl panties and march down the street” served her well as she soldiered on through surgery and came out cancer-free later in 2015. Once again she is forging ahead, advocating for changes to improve health-care legislation with the help of her longtime boyfriend, New York governor Andrew Cuomo. And this month on HBO she’s releasing the documentary Rx: Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee, which provides an intimate look at her experiences, from diagnosis to remission. “It’s not a sexy doc,” Lee says. “It’s like, here’s what I learned, what I did, and what can help you. Now have a nice life, a glass of rosé, and be a good girl.” 

RELATED: After Beating Breast Cancer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus Is Supporting Other Survivors

No Excuses To help make cancer screenings more affordable, Lee aims to expand to other states New York’s Get Screened, No Excuses law, which requires insurance companies to waive deductibles and co-payments for mammograms. “Early detection is the one thing that can save you,” Lee says, emphasizing the importance of yearly mammograms. “Cancer doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, Republican or Democrat — it’s an equal-opportunity disease.” 

Overcoming obstacles “It’s not just about physical health — it’s about mental health too,” Lee says, adding that the first time she saw the entire documentary, in a room full of HBO executives, it was hard to watch. But after warm responses from audiences at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, Lee feels energized. “Everyone who has seen it tells me, ‘I need to go get my mammogram,’ ” she says. “People are doing what they’re supposed to do. The film is accomplishing its goal. Now I just need to get those laws passed.”

RELATED: How A Sticky Bra Helped Me Discover I Have Breast Cancer

Show of support In Rx, a vulnerable Lee leans on Cuomo and her sister Kimber for support. “It’s not just about the person going through it,” she says. “Without Kimmy and Andrew there, it would’ve been awful for me.”  

Power statement As Lee says in the documentary, “It’s not your boobs that make you beautiful; it’s your strength.” She now revels in wearing revealing necklines to show the world she’s not ashamed of her post-surgery body. “I want women to say, ‘She had a double mastectomy and she has the you know whats to wear a neckline that low?’ Like walking into that operating room with my head held high, I will wear my plunging necklines, and I will be very happy that I’m alive to do it.”  —Shalayne Pulia

Rx Early Detection: A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee premieres Monday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Sept. 14.