Publish date:

The Little Blessings of the Black Widow

Jeanette Lee, the brash face of billiards in the 1990s, has an incurable cancer. For now, she's appreciating the little things on her journey of self-discovery.

Inside a windowless room with a painting of sleeping puppies on the wall, Jeanette Lee clambers atop an exam table and sways her sandaled feet off the edge, back and forth. A close friend stands at her side, holding a raft of supplies: a lumbar support pillow; a coffee thermos with a spider-web image stamped across the bottom; a bag containing two McGriddle breakfast sandwiches and some oatmeal. These provisions will help Lee weather another long day of waiting, while a four-drug chemotherapy cocktail is pumped through a port in her chest.

Other than her bright sky-blue toenail polish and a Christmas-themed cloth mask, Lee, 49, is sporting her signature monochromatic look. Black sweatpants warm her weakened legs. Black sunglasses rest on her hairless head, above a pair of slender black earrings that hang like icicles. The front of her black T-shirt reads BLACK WIDOW STRONG. And on the back: #PRAYFORTHEBLACKWIDOW.

Long before Scarlett Johansson ever pulled on a jumpsuit for a superhero flick, the pop culture world knew just one spider queen. A first-generation Korean American who across her career piled up 30-plus national and international billiards titles, millions in earnings and unheard-of fame for a professional pool player, Lee was first dubbed the Black Widow three decades ago by the owner of a billiards club not far from her Brooklyn childhood home.

dCOVblackwidow_V

“Because,” she says dryly, as if rattling off her phone number, “I’d lure my opponents to the table and eat them alive.”

Now Lee is facing her toughest foe yet, even if she prefers not to frame the treatment of her Stage IV ovarian cancer through the prism of winning and losing. Rather, she describes a period of self-discovery in which she finds meaning by sharing the depths of her “journey”—or her “walk”—with family, friends and fans.

Half an hour from her Tampa home, in the exam room of a cancer center where the fifth of her six scheduled chemotherapy sessions will soon take place, an oncologist enters the room and begins blitzing through a battery of questions about Lee’s progress. Any headaches, nausea, vomiting? “Nausea.” Appetite? “Good.” Trouble doing routine activities at home? “I have a lot of pain in my knees and ankles. More than usual.”

The doctor walks through Lee’s white-blood-cell and platelet counts (both stable) and the results of her latest CEA test, which measures for a tumor-marking protein (encouragingly low). He explains that, after chemotherapy, Lee will likely be placed on “maintenance” medicine to prevent a recurrence.

“This is not a curable cancer,” he clarifies, “but we are using different kinds of treatments to prolong life. That’s our goal.”

“So, is it possible that after I do the sixth treatment you say, ‘O.K., it looks like you're in remission, and now I'm gonna have you on maintenance’?” Lee asks.

“It’s possible. It's definitely possible.”

“O.K., I'm very satisfied,” Lee says. “Thank you very much.”

“You're doing amazing,” the doctor says. “You've got great support. … We'll see you back in three weeks. You know the drill.”

The doctor extends a fist. Lee bumps it.

“Yes,” she says, heading for the infusion suite. “Yes, yes, yes.”

A little known fact about Jeanette Lee: She is terrified of spiders. Once, in the early ’90s, a fan gave her an actual poisonous, female black widow. Lee accepted, out of politeness, but she kept the arachnid in a terrarium on the balcony of her Los Angeles home to be safe … until Lee realized her new pet was actually super pregnant, at which point she drove “very far away” and ditched it next to a dumpster.

Otherwise, nothing stood—or even crawled—in Lee’s way as she climbed to the top of her sport. A dropout from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science who made ends meet as a teenager by nannying and waiting tables across Manhattan, Lee took up pool in the late ’80s after stumbling into Chelsea Billiards and watching a pro named Johnny Ervolino pick corner pockets with ease. “He was so graceful,” Lee recalls. “It was mesmerizing.” Lee grew obsessed, practicing 16 hours a day on dimly lit tables, wrapping her left hand in electrical tape to memorize Ervolino’s bridge position, tacking a motivational poster to the wall of her cramped Midtown apartment. MASTER THE 8 BALL, it read, MASTER THE WORLD.

Three years after she first picked up a piece of chalk, Lee joined the Women’s Professional Billiards Association tour, a remarkably swift ascent for someone with her relative lack of experience. But she was an outcast from the start, criticized for her eye-grabbing match getup—long black hair cascading down a sleeveless black catsuit, accentuated by a two-fingered black glove on her bridge hand—and for her fierce table demeanor, heavy on staredowns and sideline stalking. At the 1993 world championships in Konigswinter, Germany, as Lee later recounted in her book, The Black Widow’s Guide to Killer Pool, fellow American players taunted her and booed during her matches. ​​“Month after month,” she wrote, “I cried every night of every tournament.”

Lee (in 2008) "came on hot and heavy," says Hasson, but proved her worth at the table.

Lee (in 2008) "came on hot and heavy," says Hasson, but proved her worth at the table.

Lee persisted, winning the WPBA nationals and the U.S. Open 9 ball championship in 1993 to claim the No. 1 ranking. She also won over many opponents. “She came on hot and heavy, like a bull in a China closet,” says LoreeJon Hasson, an eight-time world champion herself, and one of Lee’s biggest rivals. “But the good thing about Jeanette was that she proved it.”

Rare across billiards history is the mainstream star. Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone was known widely enough to appear on The Tonight Show and What’s My Line? in the ’60s and ’70s; and decades later Steve Mizerak sank trick shots in a Miller Lite commercial. But neither could ever hold a cue stick to the global reach that Lee—an Asian American woman in a sports world marketed toward men—achieved. In 2001, months after capturing gold in 9 ball at the World Games in Akita, Japan, she traveled to the Philippines to face pool legend Efren Reyes on his home turf, in an exhibition. While there she was tailed around the clock, not only by fans and an 11-person security detail but by a gaggle of journalists who slept in the hall outside her hotel room. (Reyes won, 13–4.)

There is no question that ESPN provided a major boost to Lee’s visibility, televising the entire WPBA tour that same year and more than doubling its billiards programming between 2002 and ’03, up to 260 airings in one year. She starred in a “This is SportsCenter” commercial, posed for the print arm’s Body Issue, worked the red carpet as a host at the ESPYs and finished third in a two-hour, made-for-TV special titled The World’s Sexiest Athletes. One year, according to her agent, Tom George, she shot pool at the company’s Christmas party in exchange for $2,000 and the networking opportunities.

But Lee also made it big through old-fashioned hustle, capitalizing on her talent, charisma and marketable look to build a following. “She never turned down an appearance,” says George. She cameoed on American Chopper and Arli$$ and inked sponsorship deals outside the world of billiards, with Rocawear and Bass Pro Shops. She taught pool fundamentals to soldiers on military bases, fired trick shots at corporate retreats and walloped pro athletes at the NFLPA’s Super Bowl party and at the NBA’s All-Star weekend. “They loved the idea of the Black Widow—someone really good, really sexy,” Lee says of her various employers. Plus the scratch was solid: In a 2008 Billiards Digest cover story, George estimated that his client was slated to earn some $800,000 that year, with only $25,000 coming from tournament winnings.

“I always felt like, no matter what happens in my life, I’d always have pool,” says Lee. “Worse comes to worst, I could do shows and exhibitions at $1,000 a pop.

“But my body wouldn’t let me.”

More than any opponent, the biggest nemesis in Lee’s pool-playing career has always been her own physical pain. Around age 12 she had two 18-inch metal rods surgically implanted from her scalp to her spine to treat severe scoliosis. A half-dozen follow-up operations awaited in adulthood—some to remove rods, others to install new ones—leaving Lee in such agony that friends would often have to carry her out of whatever pool hall she was playing in as her back seized up.

In 2013, when Lee was enshrined in the WPBA Hall of Fame, her personal physician introduced her by showing blown-up X-rays of her back to a ballroom of awestruck contemporaries. But even that failed to capture the daily pain Lee endured from a med school textbook’s worth of ailments, including bursitis, pseudoarthrosis and ankylosing spondylitis. Then there were the panic attacks that came late in her career, brought on, she says, by the crowds that tailed her into restaurants, even public bathrooms, begging for autographs. “I’d have trouble breathing and find myself in a closet, hiding, or having this incredible urge to run out of there,” Lee says.

In 2019, after moving her family from Indianapolis to Tampa and buying a local amateur league (under the American Poolplayers Association), Lee underwent yet another surgery, this time to install a spinal cord stimulator in her back. She hoped the device, with its pain-relieving remote control, would increase her quality of life slightly; instead, the pain all but disappeared. Within a week she was able to train again at home, contorting her body over the rails into previously unreachable positions, 10 hours a day. She appeared at the Tampa Bay Rays’ annual fan fest in early February 2020 and beat pitcher Brendan McKay in a challenge. A comeback story materialized in her mind. “Nothing was going to stop me,” Lee says. “I was thinking: I’m going to be a world champion again.”

To make a little extra scratch, Lee often played against (and pummeled) pro athletes, like the Jets' Vinny Testaverde, in the early 2000s.

To make a little extra scratch, Lee often played against (and pummeled) pro athletes, like the Jets' Vinny Testaverde, in the early 2000s.

The optimism didn’t last. Soon after the fan fest, not long before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Lee developed an infection in her back, and then sepsis. Her surgical team insisted on taking out the stimulator. Lee protested through tears—“You can’t do it! I’m not going back!”—but was rebuffed.

“It was very sad,” she says. “I almost just wish I didn't experience it.”

Then, early in January, Lee woke up gasping for air. At first she wrote this off as her panic attacks resurfacing—but when the shortness of breath worsened Lee asked a friend to take her to a hospital, where X-rays revealed fluid buildup in the area between her lungs and her chest. Further tests confirmed: The fluid was filled with cancerous cells that had originated in either her uterus or ovaries and had metastasized to her abdomen, liver and peritoneum.

Radiation was ruled out—too much risk of damaging her bowels—but treatment couldn’t wait. And so, less than a week later, Lee trudged into the Tampa cancer center for her first dose of chemotherapy.

SI Recommends

When Lee first discovered her fate, she thought about two things: There was the ticking clock of a vicious and advanced form of cancer, with its 14,000 annual deaths and 30.3% five-year relative survival rate. Lee’s way of dealing with that was to set a modest personal goal: live to see her 50th birthday, in July. (Her assessment of her chances at getting there: “not confident.”)

And there was her family. In addition to three adult children (including two stepdaughters from a past marriage, to fellow pool pro George Breedlove) who live on their own, Lee raises three young daughters by herself in Tampa. “Every time they laughed, I’d think, ‘How can I take that away from them?’ ” Lee says of those first days after her diagnosis. “As soon as I told them [about my cancer], it became very quiet in the household. I kept saying, ‘I’m going to fight this.’ And they kept going, ‘Yes, I know, mommy.’ But they were crying. They were terrified.” They weren’t alone. “The fact that there’s a chance they could grow up without a mom is just mortifying.”

Still, she has met cancer with the same ferocity that turned a high school dropout into a world champion. When her long, black hair began to fall out, she shaved off the rest and rejected the suggestion of a wig. (“I didn’t want to hide it,” she says.) Nausea and vomiting were constant, and spicy Korean foods burned her tongue, as if her taste buds had been “shaved with razor blades.” And yet Lee actually gained weight during her early treatments, so determined was she to follow her doctor’s orders to eat. “If it's my time, it's my time,” she says. “But I have no fear of what I can control. I'm incredibly stubborn. And my love of my children far exceeds anything I can imagine.”

Each day brings some new test. One of the worst: Following her third round of chemo, Lee underwent a robot-assisted surgery to remove her uterus and ovaries, as well as some small masses near her abdomen. (It was here that doctors were able to label her cancer as ovarian; until then they weren’t sure where the malignant cells had originated.) "They got everything they wanted to get out,” Lee recalls, “so I asked [the surgeon], ‘Can I feel like I’m coasting at this point?’ He said, ‘No, because at any point you could just stop.’ I told him, ‘I’m not gonna stop.’ And he’s like, ‘But a lot of people do.’ ”

Read More SI Daily Cover Stories: https://www.si.com/tag/daily-cover

Compounding her constant physical discomfort—from the nausea, from the surgery, from her chronic conditions—has been what Lee describes as “chemo brain,” a mental fog that causes her to forget appointments and lose track of thoughts mid-sentence. “That’s the most annoying thing,” she says. “I tend to be fairly articulate, and I’m worried I won’t get it back. … Then it's like everything has really been taken from me. I'm just a shell. I'm still walking, but I've already lost what everyone on the planet knows me for: a world champion playing pool.”

Whenever Lee slips, though, there’s always a web of helpers to catch her. Whether it’s a cousin, a childhood or pool-world acquaintance, or her own mother, Sonja, someone is always staying over to cook, clean, watch the kids and update the whiteboard in the entryway with Lee’s upcoming doctor’s appointments. Because Lee might otherwise forget, two of her godchildren put together a thick binder of tips (“rub steroid gel on painful areas”) and dietary advice (“has choked on frozen black grapes before”), plus three pages of pictures cataloging the various pills she must take each morning, afternoon and evening.

“I feel like I'm constantly in a state of falling back, sitting down on the ground,” Lee says. “And then I've got my fans and my friends and my family reaching out, pulling me back up.”

Back in mid May, on the day before her fifth chemo session, Lee sits down at her house and uncaps a Sharpie. A friend, the owner of a billiards hall in Tennessee and a breast cancer survivor herself, is hosting an upcoming fundraiser for Lee, and she has requested some Black Widow-logoed swag for auction. Lee signs sticks, balls, trading cards, posters and cloth face masks in practiced cursive, dotting each J with a heart.

All around, reminders of Lee’s career fill nearly every pocket of space. Crystal trophies line the tops of cupboards. A massive oil painting depicts her measuring a cue ball, preparing to strike. A Black Widow pinball machine idles in a corner, unplugged, near a box of Black Widow Billiards instructional DVDs. In the center of the room, a regulation-size pool table lies dormant beneath a tarp. Lee hasn’t played since her spinal cord stimulator was removed.

“I’m trying to not have so much stuff,” Lee says. “That’s another thing that changes when you think you might die: You think about all of your actions, and whether each one is worth anything.”

Decluttering, though, has become difficult, given the deluge of fan mail arriving on her doorstep: get-well cards, gifts, even a bouquet of purple and white orchids, Lee’s favorite flower. “A single orchid [is] just stunning,” Lee says. “If you had one rose, or one tulip, it wouldn’t have the same effect.”

The killer-spider reputation runs counter to the real Lee, who started a college fund for her cousins and who for a while hosted free instructional boot camps for budding pool players at her home. At the annual APA world championships in Las Vegas, she is known to keep her booth open long past close, signing autographs and playing $20 challenge matches after midnight with fans.

And when Lee went public with the cancer, her people returned the love. On top of the private donations and benefits (like the APA- and Billiards Digest-hosted Night to Celebrate the Black Widow), a GoFundMe (created by George, her agent) amassed nearly $250,000 to cover her medical bills and build college funds for her daughters, including significant donations from NASCAR legend Tony Stewart and Heisman winner Reggie Bush, two old friends.

X163651_TK_1_460-1

Lee, who’s also lost “a ton of customers” from her business during the pandemic, says this support has been vital. “I don’t know what position [my family] would’ve been in without it,” she says, “but I don’t think we would’ve made it.”

Wherever her journey takes her, she’s not alone. She connects with her 135,000 Facebook followers one 20-minute video at a time, talking about “Eating is impossible” and “Muddling through” and “Chemo #5! I’m ready for you.” She shares stories about her playing days and her cancer treatments, and in return she receives countless suggestions for miracle pills and magical foods she really ought to try.

Cancer, she says, “can feel like being cooped up in a closet, dark and alone, and that’s such a miserable existence. Whereas if you’re not in that closet, you’re still suffering but you’re talking to people, you’re sharing, and they’re there for you. And that’s gratifying. To think you could feel gratified by something horrible that’s happening to you is just a blessing.”

Blessing. Around Lee, that word comes up a lot. Some of that is a product of her strong Christian faith. (Her oldest daughter, 17-year-old Cheyenne, was adopted at birth from a fellow member of her Korean church.) But she also sees survival as a matter of finding little blessings throughout each day. “In my mind, if I stay positive and active, I can will myself to live a little longer,” Lee says. “If this disease is telling me I’ll probably have less time than everyone else, I’d better make the most of it.

On this particular day, those blessings are of the simplest form: She drives to the post office to ship Black Widow memorabilia to the auction. She swings by the animal hospital to fetch medication for her three-pound toy chihuahua, Thor, who for a moment the vet feared had cancer too—but it was just a fungal infection. Later she lunches at Cracker Barrel with two friends and Cheyenne, housing a country-fried steak bathed in gravy and picking out kitschy gifts for her other daughters: lip gloss, a jigsaw puzzle and a powder that turns bath water into gooey slime. At night, eager to keep the good vibes going before chemo in the morning, she coaxes this reporter into visiting an escape room tucked inside a business plaza, where after successfully solving a series of medieval-themed puzzles she wears a chintzy foam crown, sinks into a velvet throne and grins for a photo.

“What a blessing today is,” she says on the drive back. At home, Lee bites into a slice of pepperoni pizza, searing her tongue, then empties a pile of pills out from a lunch-box-sized organizer. Taking a quick breath, she swallows the lot in a single gulp, washing the meds down with nothing but air.

On July 9, her 50th birthday, Lee rejoices on Facebook: “I'm so glad to have made it here. … It was looking doubtful in January. But I'm sure that [it] is with your support and prayers that I'm here today. I love you all.”

The milestone, though, comes with a big asterisk. Having completed her chemo and started taking Lynparza, a new drug meant to extend her life and keep the cancer at bay, she’s eager to hear those three magic words from her oncologist: You’re in remission. Instead, she’s crushed to learn her body had only a “partial response” to the treatment. Traces of the cancer are still detectable in her lymph nodes.

“I wasn’t prepared for anything other than full remission,” she says. “I felt like I was blowing chemo up.”

Depression sets in and Lee spends hours in bed, crying and dealing with headaches, fatigue, weakness and other side effects of the Lynparza. All the while, the long shadow of her particular condition looms: The drugs won’t work forever, and the recurrence rate for Stage IV ovarian cancer is roughly 90%.

Lee with (from left) Chloe, Savannah and Cheyenne.

Lee with (from left) Chloe, Savannah and Cheyenne.

When finally Lee pulls herself up and out of bed, she resolves to refocus on the little blessings. She sells half of her stake in the APA league and cedes day-to-day responsibilities to new partners, a welcome load off. (“For the first time in my life, I don’t have to work nonstop,” she says.) She visits Busch Gardens with Cheyenne; Chloe, 12; and Savannah, 11; renting an electric wheelchair to keep up while they ride the roller coasters. She gets mani/pedis with Savannah, and gives Cheyenne driving lessons. And she visits a wig shop as her hair begins to return—though in the end she decides to keep it natural. (“I have a lot of patches that aren’t growing in,” she says, “but I’m rocking it.”) She even plays pool for the first time in two years, racking up at a local APA event. Her back aches and her stroke feels crooked, but she beats three challengers with ease.

A few weeks later, she grabs her lumbar support pillow and stiffens up for the two-hour drive to Orlando, where a friend is hosting a fundraiser on her behalf. There, a line of fans snakes to see her inside a pool hall. At one point, an elderly man with a cane hobbles forward.

As Lee stands to pose for a picture, wrapping her arm around this fan’s shoulders, the man breaks into tears. He explains that he was recently diagnosed with cancer, and that he withdrew into his home, shades pulled, to wait for death to take him in the darkness.

Then, as she recalls later, this man says he found one of Lee’s videos on Facebook. “Something you said just clicked,” he tells her. So he watched them all. Pretty soon he was eating again, showering again, leaving the house again. Living again.

He tells Lee all of this. And then he tells the Black Widow that she is a blessing to the world.

More SI Daily Covers:

A Predatory Culture, a Viral Reckoning—and Now What?
Karl Anthony Towns Opens Up About His Season of Grief
How to Judge Trevor Bauer