TV chef and lifestyle guru Sandra Lee came to the Sundance Film Festival four years ago to support a friend whose documentary about the Vietnam War was making its debut.
The star of Food Network’s “Semi-Homemade Cooking” will return in 2018, this time for “RX Early Detection: A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee.”
“I never thought for two seconds I’d be back with a film of my own,” said Lee during a recent telephone interview. Nor could she have imagined that she would be the main character in the 38-minute film covering her 2015 battle with breast cancer, which included a double mastectomy followed by an infection and other complications.
In the film, part of the Documentary Shorts Program 2, Emmy-award winning news and entertainment producer Cathy Chermol Schrijver follows Lee from operating room through recovery.
Not surprisingly, it shows the usually perfectly groomed Lee at her worst — no lipstick, tangled hair, emotional and losing weight. But it also offers tender moments with family, including her sister, Kimber, and Lee’s longtime boyfriend, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Lee, Cuomo and other members of the family will be in Utah for the Sunday premiere at the Sundance Resort and subsequent screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City.
Before their visit, Lee talked about why she decided to film her cancer journey, who should see the film and the importance of early detection. (Her comments have been edited for space.)
Whose idea was it to film your cancer surgery and recovery?
I had created this production company and hired Cathy to run it. Her first day on the job, I had to tell her I had been diagnosed with cancer. She said, “We’re going to film the whole thing and own it.” She filmed the whole thing using one of those tiny hand-held cameras. So many things happened on that journey, we were stunned at the volume of material we had accumulated.
Is there a moment in the film that stands out for you?
The American Cancer Society had just changed its recommendations saying most women can have mammograms every other year. This is ridiculous. I was 48 when I had that mammogram. They detected my cancer early but found it in several different places and it was growing quickly. What If I had waited two years?
Do you have a family history of breast cancer?
No. We didn’t have it in our family, we had other cancers. That’s why I was shocked. But now I know why God gave it to me and why I was able to catch it so early. He gave me a job to do.
What was that?
To be an advocate. Get checked. Get screened. You need to be in control of your health. Early detection is the thing that will save your life.
You’ve been on television for years. How was this project different than filming a cooking show?
Normally when I’m in front of the camera, I’m edited. My hair and makeup are done and I’m Sandra Lee as opposed to Sandy. This film is about who I usually am. It shows the different lives I have. People will see me on my knees and see me cry. It’s about the relationship between a man and woman; the relationship with a sister; the relationship with yourself and your body and one of the most intimate parts of your body. It’s a very painful journey. It shows what it will take to be cancer free, even with early detection. The good news is you will live.
Did you change your diet after your diagnosis?
I already had a great diet. But one thing I used to do was eat a lot of red meat. Now I’m more aware of the antibiotics, pesticides and hormones that go into my food. I’m much more thoughtful about the quality of food I eat. I eat a lot of leafy greens and I pay more attention to where I get plant-based foods. I have a filtration system for water. A lot of diseases are part of your family chain, but it’s our environment, too, and a combination of things we don’t even know.
Who do you hope sees the film?
It’s a film for everyone, men and women. It gives a beautiful perspective about the support system around you and how to be that for someone. There’s nothing fancy about the film. It’s just what happened. But I’m proud of it and believe that it can change and save lives. That’s what I care about.
RX Early Detection: A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee
Director and screenwriter Cathy Chermol Schrijver follows Food Network star Sandra Lee through her breast cancer surgery and recovery. The 39-minute film screens with Documentary Shorts Program 2.
Sunday, Jan. 21, 3 p.m. • Sundance Resort, Provo
Monday, Jan 22, 9 p.m • Temple, Park City
Wednesday, Jan 24, 4 p.m. • Redstone 2, Park City
Thursday, Jan 25, 3 p.m. • Broadway 6, Salt Lake City
Saturday, Jan 27, 8:30 a.m. • Holiday 1, Park City