'Black Widow' Jeanette Lee one year after Stage 4 cancer diagnosis: 'Fight the good fight'

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Jeanette Lee, the woman who earned the nickname Black Widow because, at the pool table, she was known to "eat her opponents alive," sat in a New York hospital bed, turned on Facebook live and gave 180,000 people who hung on her every word an update.

January 2022, she said, has been a rough start for a New Year. But not nearly as rough as the start of 2021.

At this time last year, the 50-year-old mother of three daughters was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. The disease ravaged her body so brutally, friends and family were fearful she had just months to live.

How is the Black Widow doing?

A year later, past treatments and surgery, Lee said she has newfound hope. It's the hope that comes with the fight it takes to be a world-renowned pocket billiards player. The fight it takes to be a woman who, early in her career, was told she would never beat the men.

Jeanette Lee updated her fans inside a New York hospital earlier this month, after having surgery due to a fall.
Jeanette Lee updated her fans inside a New York hospital earlier this month, after having surgery due to a fall.

"Stage 4 ovarian cancer, the odds are not great," Lee said in a video posted earlier this month. "But I feel like if I went by the odds of me becoming No. 1, I never would have become a world champion."

So when it comes to her cancer, which has a 17% five-year survival rate, Lee is not focusing on the statistics.

"You know, you've just got to go for it and I want to enjoy my life," said Lee. "I want to do the best I can with what I have and I want to feel blessed and that's the way that I feel. I mean, it's not been easy."

But what put Lee in that Stony Brook, New York, hospital this month had nothing to do with cancer. Yet, she said, it was one of her scariest health battles yet.

'It was brutal...out of control'

It was New Year's Eve when Lee started on her trek to New York City in a motor home. She was headed on a month-long trip of a lifetime.

"When we got the news of cancer, I started talking to my sister who lives in Hong Kong and (we) thought it would be good for us to spend some time in New York," she said. "And just visit old friends and family, people that I haven't spent a lot of time with."

On the ride there, Lee (who said she has a rule that you only stand up in the vehicle if it's urgent ) walked up to tell the driver something. About that time, a car veered into the motor home's lane. When the driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the car, Lee was flipped backward.

Jeanette Lee told Facebook fans she is often tired but tries to make the most of every day.
Jeanette Lee told Facebook fans she is often tired but tries to make the most of every day.

"And I fell headfirst down the stairwell, the steep stairwell of this big motor home," she said. "Anyway, it got pretty rough."

Lee was rushed to the emergency room where scans and MRIs ruled out anything serious. She was released and told to follow up with her doctor.

While at her friends' home in New York, Lee said, she knew something was seriously wrong. She was having a hard time talking. She knew what she wanted to say but the words wouldn't come out. She fell three times. She was "clumsy," Lee said.

"I was dropping things all the time, dropping a fork, dropping a cup, dropping a pen, a cane," she said. "Whatever I tried to put in my hand, I could not hold on to it."

Lee was having difficulty thinking, her speech was worsening, she was extremely fatigued and she was in pain.

"It was brutal. It was really scary and it was out of control," Lee said. "I pretty much couldn't do anything."

Lee went back to the ER. There, she was diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis — which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is "a narrowing of the spaces within the spine which can put pressure on nerves that travel through the spine."

The weakness and imbalance Lee was having were due to the stenosis. The pain was, too. Lee was scheduled for emergency back surgery.

Jeanette Lee lived in Mooresville at the height of her pool playing fame.
Jeanette Lee lived in Mooresville at the height of her pool playing fame.

Ten days after surgery, Lee shot the Facebook video, commenting about how she didn't like the way her black hair was growing back after she lost it due to cancer treatments. But that really wasn't anything to dwell on, she said. Her blessings were.

"I'm so thankful for having an incredible family and friends, support system that have been out there," she said. "And all my fans out there who have also been sending prayers — all that matters."

It all matters and helps, Lee said, as she keeps pushing forward.

'Write your own story'

Lee got emotional and philosophical as she spoke to fans, who were sending messages during the video.

"I'm reading what you guys are saying," Lee said. "You guys are so sweet."

She made the video to tell them that 2022 started off tough, but to never give up hope.

"Just look up, look forward to the day, look forward to tomorrow and see what you can make of it," she said. "And just don't spend it in bed, even if you feel like it."

Jeanette Lee, winner of the billiards Tournament of Champions and known as the "Black Widow," showed off her pool skills at the Indianapolis Home Show nearly two decades ago.
Jeanette Lee, winner of the billiards Tournament of Champions and known as the "Black Widow," showed off her pool skills at the Indianapolis Home Show nearly two decades ago.

Most days, Lee said, she does feel like staying in bed. Stage 4 cancer is devastating on the body — and the mind.

"I find myself in and out of depression but there is also this side to me that's like, 'No, I plan to live a long time,'" she said. "I just can't let the setbacks in my life defeat me. I'm just going to stay positive."

There are days, Lee said, when she doesn't feel as if she can get out of bed.

"I've got beautiful children and so much to look forward to and you just can't focus on the negative," she said.

And, she added, she hopes to be playing pool again very soon.

A woman who transcended the sport

In her sport of pocket billiards, Lee spit out competitors as she rose to the No. 1 player in the world. She was a woman who transcended a sport that was an afterthought in the mainstream world of football and basketball and became an international superstar.

She was in ESPN's The Body issue, walked the red carpet at the ESPY Awards and was featured in People, Glamour and Sports Illustrated.

At the height of her early success, Lee was based in Indianapolis and lived in Carmel and Mooresville. She could be spotted with other sports superstars, Peyton Manning, Helio Castroneves, Travis Best and Edgerrin James, whom she once called the best celebrity amateur pool player she's ever competed against.

Lee, an American of Korean descent, was an icon who could nab sponsorships that had nothing to do with billiards, chalk or cues — including a 7-year deal with Bass Pro Shops.

She appeared on numerous national TV shows, including Good Morning America, Crook & Chase and Hard Copy. She had a part in the Walt Disney film, The Other Sister, directed by Garry Marshall.

Lee said she knows her success has given her a platform others don't have as she battles cancer.

"Everything you go through is an opportunity to inspire others," she said. "You can be someone that people pity, but wouldn't it be better to write your own story and be someone inspiring?

"When you fight the good fight, you're going to get so much more out of life."

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Black Widow Jeanette Lee one year after Stage 4 cancer diagnosis

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