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Making Cancer Screenings More Accessible

Celebrity chef Sandra Lee is on a crusade to make testing more common and less expensive 

spinner image Sandra Lee Promotes Cancer Screenings
Courtesy HBO

One in 8 American women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. The median age of diagnosis is 62. And for most women over 50, the lifesaving benefits of annual mammograms are clear, according to a recent analysis conducted by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. 

Nevertheless, only 68 percent of women over 50 report having had a mammogram within two years, one study found. Why? Time and cost are the most frequently cited factors. With large insurance deductibles to pay or no spare sick days to use, women are often forced to put their health care on hold. 

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Enter chef, television host and author Sandra Lee. Her HBO documentary — Rx: Early Detection, A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee — tracks, in graphic detail, her breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery. After surviving her health crisis, Lee took up the challenge of helping others. She inspired her longtime companion, New York state Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to sign legislation in 2016 that increases access to breast cancer screenings and eliminates the expense of mammograms and other diagnostic procedures. At 52 and cancer free, Lee is now knocking on other governors’ doors to urge adoption of similar bills in their states. She spoke with us about battling cancer, both legislatively and in her own life.

Q: Why is the legislation that was passed by Governor Cuomo so important?

A: The law Andrew created saves lives every single day. It requires hospitals and clinics to provide extended screening hours for those who can’t get screened during the workday. It also requires the insurance companies to foot the entire bill for breast cancer screenings, eliminating annual deductibles, copays and cost sharing.

Q: How are you taking this cause to the country?

A: With the midterm elections behind us, it’s an opportune time to ask all governors to adopt this legislation. I’ve already spoken to Governor Gavin Newsom in California and Governor Jay Inslee in Washington state. Next up is Wisconsin. I started with the states I grew up in, but it’s imperative to get this law passed in every state.

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Q: You believe that your life was saved by early detection.

A: I was very lucky. When I underwent surgery five weeks later, the doctor had to be very aggressive; there was much more cancer than my medical team originally thought. That’s why getting screenings and being your own advocate are so important.

Q: So you’re suggesting that your cancer activism is just the beginning of the fight?

A: More than 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point. There are football stadiums of people dying from cancer annually. People need understanding of, and access to, cancer screenings of all types. 

Q: What can readers do to encourage politicians to make cancer screenings more available?

A: They can contact their local lawmakers, representatives, senators and governors. We’re paying them, and we’re paying the insurance companies. It’s time that they start working for us.

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