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Kathryn Joosten

Desperate Housewife and Lung Cancer Survivor

by Laura Shipp

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, November/December 2007.

Kathryn Joosten

Kathryn Joosten on the set of Desperate Housewives.
(photo courtesy of ABC/Ron Tom)

You may know her as the cantankerous, gossipy Wisteria Lane neighbor Karen McCluskey on ABC’s hit show Desperate Housewives. Or as Delores Landingham, executive secretary to President Josiah Bartlet, on NBC’s The West Wing. You may even know her as God herself on the critically acclaimed Joan of Arcadia. But what you may not know about Emmy award-winning actress Kathryn Joosten is that she is a six-year survivor of small cell lung cancer.

Kathryn, who had been a heavy smoker, attributes her success in battling lung cancer to early detection and a good relationship with her primary care physician. Since her doctor knew she smoked, he insisted she have chest x-rays every six months. On one visit, he found a suspicious lesion. A PET scan later confirmed that Kathryn had developed small cell lung cancer.

In an interview with Coping® magazine, Kathryn reveals that due to her 10 years of nursing experience and subsequent knowledge about cancer and its treatment, she was not panicked by her diagnosis. In fact, she says, “I went opposite the other way, which is just as bad. I went into denial, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go have my cancer out, and I’ll be fine.’”

Because her cancer was found early, Kathryn was a candidate for surgery, which is not typically the case for people diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. Her surgeon scheduled her for a camera-assisted, minimally invasive procedure. However, Kathryn says, “It turned out to be much more extensive that he had originally planned.” When her surgeon realized that the tumor was very close to her ribs, it meant that Kathryn had to have her upper right lobe removed, along with the lymph nodes on that side and a couple of ribs.

“I went into denial, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go have my cancer out, and I’ll be fine.’”

Joosten


As a result of the surgery, Kathryn now deals with keloid scars on her back and nerve damage. And she only sweats on one side of her body, which can be a source of frustration for the make-up people on set. “I hadn’t anticipated being so fatigued, nor having residual pain from the surgery,” Kathryn admits, adding “but that’s a small price to pay.”

Six years later, Kathryn says her cancer is “totally gone.” She is now a spokesperson for the National Lung Cancer Partnership, putting a well-known face to lung cancer survivorship. “I thought it would be good to start a lung cancer survivors network in Hollywood,” Kathryn says, “but there’s nobody else that will come forward and say they have lung cancer. People are afraid it might affect their careers, and quite frankly, I had the same reaction at first too.”

Kathryn explains that when working on a film, actors are required to undergo physicals so that the producing studio can get insurance to assure that the picture will be completed on time. The same is true for those who are regulars on a television series; the television studio must be able to ensure that their actors will continue with the show for its duration. If actors can’t be insured, they can’t get work. “I didn’t have that problem,” Kathryn says, “because I’m not a regular on shows, I’m a recurring character, so I didn’t have to get physicals.”

Now that Kathryn has passed the five-year mark of survival, she is no longer considered a risk to producers. Hopefully, that means we’ll be seeing a lot more of her, especially since she says her plans are “just to keep working until I can’t work, then it’s up to my kids to take care of me.”

Kathryn’s advice for someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer is “be proactive.” She adds, “I think it’s very important for people to be directive in their care and know what the medications are. It takes a lot of work and energy. If you can’t do it, designate somebody to do it.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

For more information about the National Lung Cancer Partnership, visit www.nationallungcancerpartnership.org. You can watch Kathryn Joosten on Desperate Housewives Sunday nights on ABC.

For an update of Kathryn’s story from Coping, click here.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2007.