March 27, 2015 was turning into one of Sandra Lee’s best days. The former star of Food Network’s Semi-Homemade Cooking, was at PEOPLE’s Most Beautiful set and wearing “the most gorgeous white dress,” she recalls.
“You never feel more beautiful than when you walk off that set,” Lee tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “Between the hair, the makeup and the lighting.”
But Lee, then 48, didn’t know that twenty minutes later she would be walking away from life as she knew it. In a car on the way to meet a friend for dinner, her doctor called with the biopsy results they had ordered following a mammogram — and she had cancer.
Just two days later, while she was still reeling from her shocking diagnosis, a colleague of hers suggested they document her cancer journey, “the way old documentaries used to be shot” with just one camera.
At first, she was hesitant and said, “I’m not having camera, light, action,” but it didn’t take long for her to be convinced when she realized that showing herself in a new light could help other people dealing with similar situations.
The footage they took over the next long nine months — which included everything from graphic footage taken during her double mastectomy surgery to the painful aftermath — ended up turning into a new HBO documentary, RX: Early Detection — A Cancer Journey with Sandra Lee, which premiers on October 8.
The footage also included many tender moments with her sister, Kimber Lee, 46, and her boyfriend of fourteen years, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, both who never left her side.
Makeup-free and sometimes in excruciating pain, Lee doesn’t shy away from showing what “it’s really like” to live with cancer, and all of the important and fast decisions one has to make.
“No doctor can tell you everything you need to know. The biggest thing I can do is really show people what it looks like to go through this so they walk in with open eyes—which I did not have,” says Lee, now 52, who has been cancer free since May, 2015.
Lee didn’t realize that she had a documentary until she sat down in the fall of 2016 to watch the footage with HBO’s then-president of documentary films, Sheila Nevins.
They both sat there crying and realized that Lee’s honest portrayal of cancer was different than what they had seen before.
“Sheila looked at me and said, ‘Okay, this is not what I thought it was going to be,'” she recalls. “If you really want to do this, you have to understand that people are never going to look at you the same way.’ I told her, ‘If it saves one life, I’m doing it.’ ”
Lee, realizing how privileged she was to get top notch care, was just as aware that most women throughout the country don’t have the money, or time, to get breast screenings.
“Early diagnosis just gives you the opportunity to be the most aggressive that you can be,” she said. “It’s the best treatment.”
Her story and journey inspired Governor Cuomo to make it easier for women to get screened.
In June 2016, he passed new legislation to improve access to breast cancer screening by expanding screening hours at hospitals and clinics and removing some insurance barriers.
“Sandy’s experience with breast cancer was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through personally,” he told PEOPLE, “but it opened my eyes and I learned a lot.”
He added: “One of the first things the doctor said to me about Sandy was, ‘Luckily we caught it early.’ That always stuck with me because it shouldn’t be a matter of luck. It’s a matter of life and death and early detection is the best treatment.”
• For much more on the Sandra Lee’s story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Cuomo said that they then identified the obstacles to getting screened and resolved them by one by one.
“If there’s a silver lining to what Sandy went through,” he said, “it’s that we learned how to give millions of New Yorkers access to screenings. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Lee says that her mission and purpose in life is now to get other governors to pass the same, or similar legislation.
“Whatever I have to offer, and whatever experience I have gone through, is yours to learn from,” she says. “Please take all that I have been through. I’m lucky to now be able to save other people’s lives. We’re all lucky to be alive.”
While she’s always taught her fans about cooking —while wearing a full face of makeup and always with a perfect blow out — she’s ready to teach them something else.
“It’s important for them to understand that you don’t have to be beautiful or perfect — which I come off as on TV all the time,” she said. “It’s okay to be human. We’re all human. It’s most important that we help each other.”