| December 14, 2015 | People
Emmy-winning TV personality and Wisconsin native Sandra Lee talks with friend Christy Turlington Burns about her Midwestern roots, her diagnosis of and successful fight against cancer, and how her new Shades of Pink/Painted Pink campaign is helping increase awareness of this ravaging disease.
“Ultimately, taking control is empowering,” says Sandra Lee, who worked with photographer Jill Lotenberg and hair and makeup artist Alx Galasinao to develop this dramatic image for Lee’s Painted Pink/Shades of Pink campaign.
Sandra Lee is widely known for her entrepreneurial success and her star turn as an Emmy Award–winning TV chef and cookbook author (and to a lesser degree, for a love of white, and her famous partner—Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York). Recently the Wisconsin native added another achievement, perhaps the most heart-wrenching one, to a life filled with them: breast cancer survivor.
Following a routine mammogram in March of 2015, Lee was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ. As chronicled on her social media sites and, later, in interviews with Good Morning America, Lee opted first for a lumpectomy, but followed it quickly with a double mastectomy. Unfortunately, there were complications, which entailed grueling surgeries and return bouts in the hospital. Four months after her diagnosis, she returned to GMA with good news. “I was early stage, and the beautiful thing about early-stage cancer… is it gives you every option in the world, and that is what I took,” Lee told Robin Roberts, also a cancer survivor. “My doctors have said I am cancer-free and that I am ready to go.”
Since her diagnosis, Lee has become an ardent advocate for early breast cancer detection and treatment, and was named an ambassador for Stand Up to Cancer, a nonprofit cofounded by Katie Couric that raises funds to speed up pioneering research into new treatments. On December 5, Lee will serve as ambassador for New York City’s Miracle on Madison Avenue event, in partnership with Madison Avenue Business Improvement District. This well-attended occasion, now in its 29th year, raises funds to benefit pediatric cancer research and programs for The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering. (Participating retailers on Madison Avenue give 20 percent of their profits on the first Saturday of the holiday shopping season to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.) Here, in an exclusive interview, Lee talks to friend and maternal-health advocate Christy Turlington Burns about the event, what she learned from her ordeal with cancer, her Midwestern roots, and how her new Shades of Pink/Painted Pink campaign, created through the Sandra Lee Foundation, will help in her advocacy for early detection and honor women and their families whose lives have been impacted by the disease.
Sandra Lee with Sir Elton John at the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 14th annual An Enduring Vision Benefit this past November.
You spent your high school and college years in Wisconsin, lived in Los Angeles, and are now a New Yorker. How often do you come back to the Midwest?
The Midwest is never far from my heart and I come back every year to La Crosse for Oktoberfest. It’s an annual date that I have with my best friend Lisa from Onalaska High School—I wouldn’t give it up for anything. These four fall days reconnect me to my wonderful years in the Midwest. And one of the best things about this weekend is that I always fly in and out of Chicago and spend a couple of days seeing what’s new.
Tell us some of your favorite things about Chicago.
Well, for starters, I love the Water Tower. It’s a magnificent and historic architectural landmark, and I could stare at it for hours. There is always something new to see, to do, and to taste in Chicago. The art scene is world-class, the shopping is divine, and the food is fabulous. There is a European feel and fair to the boutiques. But what I love the most is the sincerity of the people in Chicago. Midwestern values are incredibly special, and I am proud to say I have never lost them and I never will.
Why did you decide to become involved with Miracle on Madison Avenue?
I was asked to serve as an ambassador for the event and happily accepted because it is a wonderful holiday tradition. Participating merchants donate significant proceeds from sales on Saturday, December 5, to The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering. I’m delighted to support this world class institution and encourage those who plan to holiday shop on Madison Avenue to come out that day and help such a worthy organization. Also in my role as an ambassador for Stand Up to Cancer, we want to get the word out about beating this disease, so working with Miracle on Madison is an honor.
You recently shot bold images for a cancer awareness campaign to be called Painted Pink or Shades of Pink. Tell us how the photo shoot happened.
I wanted the image to incorporate a feeling of empowerment, of sexiness, and of something smart. The image had to embody beauty and communicate a confidence and strength in owning the diagnosis. It shows how to be proud of the way you handled it. It also had to be a fantasy, but one every woman, regardless of age, could see herself pictured in. I wanted the photograph to be something women could be proud to hang on their wall, something that said, “Job well done. Cancer didn’t define me; I defined it.” The image combined a lot of artful input and forethought, but it took just under two hours to do, which is a stunningly short period of time for what came out of that photo session.
The makeup and styling for the shoot is very artistic. What was the thought process that went into it?
The modeling and styling represented a couple of things. First and foremost, the way everybody feels after a diagnosis, whether it’s your own diagnosis or that of someone you love. You’re confused and internally frantic no matter how on top of things or organized you are. You just feel out of control, like a hot mess. Photographer Jill Lotenberg and I worked hard to get the perfect lighting so that the shades of pink really popped. I wanted the image shot in a natural white light—what I call “God’s light,” as man can never create anything better.
At the 67th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in September.
Why the different shades of pink?
My longtime makeup and hair artist is Alx Galasinao, who really helped me bring this vision to life. Alx is an Emmy Award winner and searched high and low for colors representing every shade of pink. There are many shades to show how breast cancer has affected nearly everyone. The lighter shades stand for people who support loved ones affected by cancer. The darker, more intense hues represent the different stages of the disease. I haven’t decided whether we’re going to name this campaign Shades of Pink or Painted Pink.
How has having cancer changed you?
I am the same. I just want to make sure each day is filled with the best life has to offer—for everyone.
You were incredibly brave to show treatment images from your hospital stays on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites. Why did you decide to be so forthcoming?
Was it more difficult as a high-profile personality to deal with the diagnosis and treatment? I’ve had a long career in the public eye, and I have always been open and straightforward with my fans and my followers on social media. I have never been one to hide anything from them. Being fortunate to work in television and to have a magazine, books, and products that reach people, I knew that, while sharing this experience was very personal, it is authentic to who I am. The person you see on television is really me, so why should I be any different, especially if I have something more meaningful to share? What I was learning could potentially save others’ lives, too. Perhaps this was the most important public appearance I have ever made. I opened a door and let people know what was going on, and that I was going to be okay. If they are ever faced with a similar diagnosis, they will know I made it through and what it was like for me. If that helps anyone, it was worth it; if my story motivates someone to get screened, it was worth it.
Talk about your first interview with Robin Roberts right after being diagnosed. Why was it important for you to share news of the diagnosis in this way?
Robin has been an example to so many people. She has bravely fought her cancer and shared her experience publicly. I admire and respect her, and when I had the opportunity to tell my story, I was drawn to Robin for that reason. In many ways she inspired me to share my experience because of her bravery and generosity. She was a wonderful support to me throughout my journey, and remains so today.
Lee talks to Robin Roberts about being cancer-free on Good Morning America.
What was the best advice you received after your diagnosis?
To take care of myself first and be selfish about it, to be in the moment. None of that is my nature, but I did the best I could to follow the advice I received.
How do you change how people perceive cancer, not just with fear and as a stigma? How do you eliminate the notion that a woman isn’t pretty, feminine, or sexy after breast surgery?
Once you get over the shock of the diagnosis, you have to make a choice. Are you going to curl up in a ball and hide in a dark room, or are you going to take charge of your cancer, treatment, and recovery? Sure, there will be moments of sadness and fear, but ultimately, taking control is empowering. Women who are in control and empowered are beautiful. Women who are confident and in control of their lives and whatever situations they face are ultimately sexy. Sexy isn’t just physical; it’s a state of mind. The old adage “Beauty comes from within” became very meaningful to me.
How do you sort through studies and reports on breast cancer that contradict and confuse women, both those who have a diagnosis and those who do not?
You have to educate yourself, understand your options, and do what’s best for you. All the advice and options presented upon diagnosis can be confusing. To the best of your ability, manage your health, and by all means, the best way to combat cancer is through prevention and screening.
Do you perceive yourself as a woman with breast cancer or a woman who had a double mastectomy?
Neither. I am a cancer survivor. I am cancer-free!
Talk about how you get breast cancer as a couple, as a family.
Anyone who has ever loved someone with cancer knows the pain of seeing them go through it. I have experienced that with friends and loved ones. So while my body may have had the cancer, it did impact everyone in the family. It’s a gray cloud over everything until you take control of it. Like any stress, it impacts a couple and a family.
What did you learn about breast cancer that you didn’t know before your diagnosis? Did you think you were at risk?
I am in the prime of my life, healthy, happy, and didn’t consider myself to be at risk. However, we all know people who live incredibly healthy lifestyles who get cancer—the woman who never smoked but got lung cancer. I was shocked at my diagnosis because I didn’t think I was at risk or that it would happen to me. Cancer is the great equalizer. We are all at risk, and this is why I believe screening is so important. It saves lives.
PhoTograPhy By JiLL LoTenBerg. STyLing, hair, and MakeuP By aLx gaLaSinao