- Billiards legend Jeanette Lee, 49, aka ‘The Black Widow,’ is battling stage 4 ovarian cancer. Lee’s longtime manager says she’s on her second round of chemotherapy and is doing OK.
- George also tells SurvivorNet about this inspiring female phenomenon. “Jeanette entered a male-dominated world and made it her own,” he says. “She is the only pool player to go beyond her sport to become a true sports icon.”
- There have been some amazing developments in medicine over recent years with PARP inhibitors, which can help treat ovarian cancer. These drugs—which help prevent cancer cells from repairing their damaged DNA (genetic material), causing them to die off—work best in women who have a genetic mutation called BRCA. We do not know Lee’s treatment plan, but it’s important to know that medicine is constantly advancing, and to never give up hope even with late stage cancer.
Lee’s longtime manager, Tom George, gave an update on her health earlier this week to the Indianapolis Star, saying that she is on her second round of chemotherapy treatment, and is doing OK. “The diagnosis is dire, but people have won.”Read More
“She is the only pool player to go beyond her sport to become a true sports icon,” he adds, mentioning that she is a cultural icon as well.
A Tough Fight
Lee has certainly won throughout her life with her determination, so although the situation is very serious, the global star has overcome many odds. When Lee initially made a comment about her diagnosis after the news broke last month, she was prepared to fight.
“I intend to bring the same resolve I brought to the billiards table to this fight,” Lee had said to the American Poolplayers Association (APA) in February. “Jim Valvano so eloquently told us to ‘Never give up.’ I owe it to my three young daughters to do exactly that.” (The late Jim Valvano was a celebrated college basketball coach who died of cancer.)
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The single mother’s biggest anxiety is over the future care of her girls, according to Lee’s GoFundMe page, started by close friends. The money raised will go to Cheyenne, 16, Chloe, 11, and Savannah, 10, to help with paying for college. The fund is almost up to $190,000 for a goal of $250,000. NASCAR driver Tony Stewart donated $10,000.
“It is with heavy hearts that we share that our friend and billiards icon, Jeanette Lee, has been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer,” the page says.
“Her prognosis is currently unknown and depends upon her body’s response to the first phase of treatment she is now undergoing,” the page says. “Left untreated, this stage and type of cancer can be swiftly terminal. But backed by her will to live, modern medical treatments may significantly prolong her life.”
Fans and billiards players all over the world have been donating and sharing good thoughts and appreciation of Lee.
“Jeanette Lee has been an inspiration for all of us billiard players,” one fan writes. “It’s an honor for me to donate to this worthy cause and help support her in her tough times. You go girl!”
“Sending strength to you and your family for your fight, writes another fan. “You were the one who inspired me to learn to play pool. I love the game because of you.
Her Love For the Game
Lee grew up in Brooklyn to Korean immigrants. At 18, she discovered a dark, smoky pool hall in New York City and was immediately intrigued by the sport.
“Jeanette saw the table like no one else, the movement of the balls, the geometric patterns,” George said in a previous interview, adding that when she walked into his office, he could tell she was “superstar material.”
In less than two years after starting to play pool, she became the number one ranked player in the world and dominated the male-dominated sport. Lee also won the gold medal for the U.S. at the 2001 World Akita Games in Japan.
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Years of Debilitating Pain from Prior Health Issues
Lee, who now resides in Tampa, Fla., fought debilitating pain throughout most of her career, unrelated to her recent cancer diagnosis. She has suffered through over 20 major surgeries from other health issues over the years like fibromyalgia (a disorder causing skeletal pain throughout the whole body) and scoliosis (a sideways curvature of the spine).
“I was getting stabbing pains,” Lee told Tampa news station FOX 13 in 2020 of the constant back pain. “I handled it because I didn’t know how to quit … I had to play pool.”
Lee’s major hope was her eventual spinal cord stimulation surgery, which worked temporarily until a staph infection led to a reversal of the spinal cord stimulation.
“I’m still going through [coming to terms with my career being over] and it’s terrifying,” Lee had said. “If you can just keep your chin up, there’s greater things in store for you.” Lee also shared some inspiring words for others going through a hard time during the pandemic. “I always say you don’t have to feel strong to be strong.”
Now, she is facing stage 4 cancer.
Advancements for Late Stage Ovarian Cancer
As Lee’s family mentioned on their GoFundMe page, there have indeed been some amazing developments in medicine over recent years with PARP inhibitors, which can help treat ovarian cancer. These drugs—which help prevent cancer cells from repairing their damaged DNA (genetic material), causing them to die off—work best in women who have a genetic mutation called BRCA. We do not know Lee’s treatment plan, but it’s important to know that medicine is constantly advancing, and to never give up hope even with late stage cancer.
Dr. Lynn Parker from Norton Cancer Institute tells SurvivorNet about the pros and cons of the drug. “PARP inhibitors are expensive, but there are ways to access those medications,” Dr. Parker says. “Like with any medication, they have potential toxicities or side effects. So I think that as a patient being aware of what is possible is important.”
Dr. Parker explains that some women will be able to handle side effects better than others, but says “there are different doses that can be utilized and looking at the timing of when you’re using it … if you’ve just completed chemotherapy, you may be more fatigued or weak than you would [normally] be in a few months.” She typically gives patients a lower dose of PARPs for the first few months after chemotherapy and then works them up to a higher dose, but it depends on the patient’s individual situation. It is best that women discuss these treatment options with their own doctors.
Common PARP Side Effects and What to Expect
“Fatigue is very common,” Dr. David Engle from Baptist Medical Group tells SurvivorNet. “GI upset, whether it be nausea, indigestion, poor appetite, diarrhea, all very, very common, and perhaps nausea is one of the most common side effects that we see for many of these drugs.”
Fortunately, many of these side effects will decrease or even go away over time.
“Sometimes over a month’s time, if we can help the patient either with medication to prevent their nausea or if they’re able to tolerate the fatigue, many times, these symptoms will resolve over four to six weeks of treatment. The body just kind of gets used to this as the new normal, and those symptoms will start to abate,” he says.
One of the more serious side affects is anemia, or lower blood cell counts, and it can also affect our platelets. Just like in chemotherapy treatment, “there are lab tests that we frequently draw every week for the first month the patient is placed on these medications, looking to make sure that they are not becoming anemic or their platelets are not becoming too low. If they can maintain these markers of your blood levels for the first month, then oftentimes we’ll go to month-to-month evaluations on those.”