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Sandra Lee, revealing breast cancer, takes public stand with diagnosis

She built a mini-empire with cooking skills, a winning smile – and easy products from the grocery store.

Now, she is offering audiences another sort of lesson.

Sandra Lee, the star Food Network chef with TV shows and a magazine to her name – as well as a unique status as the longtime girlfriend of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – told New York State residents, and the world, on Tuesday that she has breast cancer.

Already, Lee seemed to be turning her diagnosis into a learning moment for others.

The governor, in a statement about Lee’s diagnosis on Tuesday, said he saw Lee as a woman of courage for talking to the public about her cancer.

“For those of you familiar with Sandy’s life story, it will not surprise you that she has met this latest challenge with determination, resolve and grace,” Cuomo said. “She never ceases to amaze me.

“While she has kept her illness private until now, Sandy has bravely decided to speak openly about her illness in order to remind women of the potentially lifesaving power of early detection. I fully support her decision.”

Erie County’s top health official said Lee’s decision to speak publicly about her situation could make a difference in drawing attention to breast cancer.

Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the county’s health commissioner, called Lee brave for being open about her case.

“It was courageous of Ms. Lee to come out, and go public with her diagnosis,” Burstein said.

She added that sharing private health concerns with the public is “very altruistic” on the part of the Food Network celebrity.

For cancer awareness and prevention, having a celebrity like Lee talking about the issue is a good thing, the county health commissioner said.

“It’s a free public service announcement,” Burstein said.

Lee, 48, who occupies the role of first lady of the state, told viewers she of her cancer diagnosis during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“I was stunned ... You know, and that’s just how fast life turns. It turns on a dime,” she said on the program.

On her Facebook page Tuesday, Lee said she is in “good health” and has tested negative for both BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“I had no warning signs, no feeling of being tired, no pain and no lump – nothing,” Lee wrote. “Had I not gone in for a routine annual mammogram, I would never have known I was in danger.”

Lee wrote that she will have a bilateral mastectomy.

“This was not a decision I made lightly, and I’m not advocating for anyone else to make the choice that I made – but I am saying that without early detection on my side, I could telling a very different story – or not be here to tell it at all,” she wrote.

Lee, who lives with Cuomo in Westchester County, said in the TV appearance that she had learned of her cancer diagnosis in March, during a People magazine photo shoot.

Burstein, the health commissioner, said cancer is a reality that many families deal with.

“Western New York has very high rates of cancer,” she said, and breast cancer is among them.

She said one of the lessons of the Lee diagnosis is that cancer can happen to anyone, anywhere.

“Everybody’s at equal risk,” she said. “Being a celebrity is not protective against cancer.”

Cuomo said in his statement that he plans to take time off to help Lee in her recovery.

“I was devastated,” the governor said, of his reaction when Lee told him the news several weeks ago.

“Sandy is young for her diagnosis, she has no family history, she is healthy and had no symptoms or signals that she was in danger,” Cuomo added.

Lee told People magazine that she was diagnosed with what the publication called a common, non-invasive cancer that is contained within the milk ducts.

She said she wants to undergo a double mastectomy because “I never want to go through this again.”

She told the TV program that Cuomo will be in the operating room during her procedure.

Lee has a magazine and has hosted “Sandra’s Money Saving Meals,” “Semi-Homemade Cooking,” and “Sandra’s Restaurant Remakes” on the Food Network.

She released a novel in 2013 called “The Recipe Box.”

The governor, in his comments on Lee’s diagnosis, dealt with the impact of such a diagnosis.

“A situation like this quickly puts life in the proper perspective and reminds one of what’s truly important,” Cuomo said in his statement.

“To that end, I expect to take some personal time because I want to be with Sandy to support her in any way I can as she handles the trauma of her operation and the pain of the recovery.”

Cuomo, in his praise of Lee, appeared to be referring to Lee’s difficult childhood, which she described in her memoir, “Made from Scratch.”

She was born to teenage parents in Los Angeles, and she and her sister spent a happy part of their childhood living with their paternal grandmother.

Their mother remarried and reclaimed them for what Lee describes as an abusive home life.

By the time she was in high school, she was living on her own and supporting herself.

The need to “make do,” and the understanding that many people don’t have the ability to live as locavores, inspired her semi-homemade philosophy. Lee has been awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for her charitable service, which, she writes, has focused on issues she grew up knowing something about: hunger, poverty and homelessness.

Now, with another personal challenge ahead, Lee seems to have a new message to share.

“She wants to communicate the message of early detection, which can make all the difference with breast cancer,” Cuomo said at a news event Tuesday on Long Island.

“She had always been diligent about her exams ... if she hadn’t gone, and she had waited until she was 50, this would have been a very different situation than we are dealing with.”

Burstein noted that all Erie County residents have access to mammograms and other screening procedures under a program in the county, paid for by grants, called the Erie County Cancer Services Program.

For certain cancers, like breast cancer, she said, there is a risk that is wide.

The contacts with Erie County for the screening program are: 858-7376 or the website cspwny.org.

The governor said they are hopeful that everything will turn out well and that he supports Lee’s decision to go public with her condition.

“I’m proud of her. It’s not easy to talk about this operation, and recovery and have everyone know. That’s her. She has a goodness in her core. She wants to do the right thing. She wants to help people. She wants to make the world better,” he said.

“I’ve been with Sandy for 10 years, and that’s been a constant.”

News Staff Reporter Melinda Miller contributed to this report. email: tprecious@buffnews.com and cvogel@buffnews.com