| December 15, 2015 | People
Sandra Lee joins Miracle on Madison Avenue, a holiday fundraiser to benefit cancer research, and talks with friend Christy Turlington Burns about her own diagnosis this year, being cancer-free, and how her new Shades of Pink/Painted Pink campaign is helping to increase awareness of this ravaging disease.
Sandra Lee worked with photographer Jill Lotenberg and hair and makeup artist Alx Galasinao to develop this dramatic image for her 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 for her famous partner—Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York). Recently Lee 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 this year, 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—with the governor constantly at her side. 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. Lee has always been active in charities, among them the Food Bank for New York City, The Bowery Mission, and Unicef, and has long spearheaded fight-hunger initiatives through her private foundation.
On December 5, Lee will serve as ambassador for Miracle on Madison Avenue, in partnership with Madison Avenue BID. This well-attended event, 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 from 57th to 86th Streets give 20 percent of their profits on the first Saturday of the holiday shopping season to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.) Here Lee talks to friend and maternal-health advocate Christy Turlington Burns about Miracle on Madison Avenue, what she learned from her ordeal, the tough year that’s now behind her, 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 joined Sir Elton John at the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 14th annual An Enduring Vision Benefit at Cipriani Wall Street this past November.
Why did you decide to become involved with Miracle on Madison Avenue?
Sandra Lee: I was asked to serve as an ambassador for the event and happily accepted because it’s 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.
What will you be doing and where will you be on December 5, the day of the event?
We start out with a midmorning breakfast celebration in conjunction with The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. Official festivities begin with an honored tradition, the ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon, which will take place on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 64th Street, and officially launch the event. After the ribbon-cutting, I will stroll Madison Avenue and visit participating retailers to thank them for their generous support of this cause. There will also be entertainment with six sets of costumed carolers, gift-wrapping stations, and holiday-themed refreshments at many venues. Madison Avenue is a world-renowned destination any day of the year, but on Saturday, December 5, the spirit of holiday giving takes on a whole new meaning. How could I ever not take the chance to be a part of this? How could anyone? Come out and join me!
You recently shot bold images for a cancer awareness campaign to be called either Painted Pink or Shades of Pink. Tell us how this 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—frst 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.
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, an Emmy Award winner, 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. I wasn’t really ready to share this vision or the idea of a new campaign, but when the team at Niche [the parent company of Gotham and Michigan Avenue, where the images will run] saw the photo and asked if it could be used for holiday covers, I said yes.
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 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’re 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.
Lee talks to Robin Roberts about being cancer-free on Good Morning America.
Tell me 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. And she was a wonderful support to me throughout my journey, and remains so today.
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 don’t?
You have to educate yourself, understand your options, and do what’s best for you. The media and 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. No two individuals deal with something the same way or feel it at the same time. That can be a blessing because you can be there for each other. Andrew was strong when I was at my weak moments, and I like to think I was able to be there for him with a smile or reassurance that I was going to be okay. My sister Kimmy was my rock and she didn’t leave my side. She had to come in from Seattle and leave her family to take care of me.
After undergoing a double mastectomy earlier this year, Lee wore a pale pink gown to the 67th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in LA.
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.
Can you talk about cancer prevention, care, treatment, and support in New York State?
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in New York State, and what is incredible is that at least half of the deaths are related to preventable causes. If we can educate people about the risks from poor nutrition, obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity, we will reduce these numbers. And we are doing something about it. Last May, New York State’s Department of Health hosted the first-ever Cancer Prevention Summit here in New York City. State and national cancer-prevention researchers, medical and public health practitioners, health organizations, business and government leaders, and other stakeholders came together around the agenda of prevention. Prevention will stack the deck against cancer, and it will save lives and billions of dollars. By making meaningful changes in our lifestyles and through screening, cancer will be beaten!
What, if anything, have you taken comfort from by being in New York City during this experience?
We are fortunate to live in a world-class city that’s home to so many leading healthcare facilities. Throughout the state, we are blessed to have access to amazing cancer treatment centers. There were many options available to me, and I was surrounded by my family and friends, who offered love, support, shoulders to cry on, and laughter when I needed it. It really is the best medicine.
How did New Yorkers respond when you revealed details of your diagnosis and treatment?
[I was reassured by] the open, warm nature of New Yorkers—their honesty in sharing their own stories—who came up to me on the street. They say they’re praying for me. They give me advice and ideas on health tips and healing that helped them or someone they love. In many ways, New Yorkers are like an enormous extended family, and when you’re sick, they’re there for you and cheering you on to get well. That support is something I will cherish forever—and there are no words for how much it meant to me.
You were a part of a MasterCard/Stand Up to Cancer gift at the World Series on the night the Mets won their game. That had to be exciting!
Yes! It is a tremendous honor and privilege for me to be associated with both of these phenomenal groups. At MasterCard, they believe strongly in “doing well by doing good” and sharing priceless moments. That night was both for me. They gave me an oversize MasterCard to present on the field to Stand Up to Cancer: a $4.25 million donation. About seven or eight people had to help me hold up the card. Four million dollars is heavy!
What was the highlight for you that night?
The most moving moment was when the entire stadium had a moment of silence for loved ones they lost to cancer or for those who are battling it now. Each person held up a sign with the name of family members or friends that they wrote themselves. Men, women, teens, little children… all holding signs reading my mom, my brother, my dad, or my best friend Mike. It was so moving, and it illustrated how just about everyone is somehow touched by cancer.
PhotograPhy by Jill lotenberg, styling, hair, and MakeuP by alx galasinao