Takes on Breast Cancer as the Opportunity of a Lifetime
by Jessica Webb Errickson
In 1980, aspiring news anchor Joan Lunden broke into the media spotlight by landing a job co-hosting ABC’s Good Morning America. Over the course of her nearly two-decade run on the show, Joan secured her position as one of most popular and respected media personalities in the business.
In addition to longest-running host on early morning television, Joan has many titles: wife, mother of seven (including two sets of young twins), journalist, bestselling author, and motivational speaker. However, as Joan relates during a conversation with Coping magazine, “At the heart of Joan Lunden is a health advocate.”
Much of Joan’s post-GMA work has revolved around her interest in health and wellness. So when she dropped by the show this past June to make an announcement, she stunned the audience when, instead of promoting an upcoming book or television show, Joan announced on air that she was battling breast cancer.
Though her diagnosis was unexpected, Joan’s response to the situation was anything but. In true journalistic fashion, driven by her passion for health and wellness, Joan set out on a mission to shed light on the disease and the importance of early detection by sharing her story as she lives it.
Joan’s journey began June 5, 2014, when she went in for her annual mammogram and follow-up ultrasound. For women with dense, fibrous breast tissue, like Joan’s, she cites breast ultrasound as an integral step in annual screening to check for anything the mammogram may have missed.
As it turns out, Joan’s mammogram had missed something. Though the mammogram indicated that she was in the clear, the subsequent ultrasound revealed two tumors in her right breast. “If I had not gone in for that ultrasound, I might not have been around for my next mammogram,” says Joan, emphasizing the importance of knowing the best method of screening for your particular type of breast tissue.
A biopsy confirmed that Joan had triple-negative breast cancer.
“The first thing that went through my mind was how I might let people down,” the health-advocacy figurehead reveals. “What would people think? ‘Oh, she was supposed to be so healthy and taking such good care of herself, and now look.’”
However, after a few days of rumination, Joan realized that her diagnosis didn’t have to be seen as something negative that had to be kept secret.
“I’ve always felt very self-satisfied that I went into the business of disseminating information that helps people make better choices about their health,” Joan says. Rather than viewing her imminent journey as something to fear, she adds, “I knew that I was being handed an opportunity.”
Outpouring of Support and Solidarity
Joan joins a sisterhood of GMA hosts who have publicly battled cancer. Robin Roberts and Amy Robach, both breast cancer survivors, have also allowed viewers to watch their journeys unfold. And when Joan visited the GMA set to make her cancer announcement, it was Robin who interviewed her on her diagnosis, spearheading Joan’s mission to spread awareness about the disease.
“Robin was a major source of strength for me right in the beginning,” Joan says. “I told her, ‘I have to get in front of this situation.’ And she said, ‘Absolutely. Let’s decide when you’re coming on the show.’”
Whether they’re offering to cover Joan’s speaking engagements or to accompany her to chemo, overwhelming support from her colleagues has bolstered Joan’s positive attitude. Her friends and family are key in her arsenal of support as well. “Don’t try to do it alone,” she advises her fellow cancer fighters. Especially in the beginning. “I don’t think you should go to any of those initial appointments alone, because you are in shock. I took one of my daughters or my husband to every single appointment. They took great notes about everything the doctors were saying. I never would have remembered it all.”
A Bold (Bald) Choice
After scouting multiple opinions regarding her treatment plan – each one different from the last – Joan settled on a regimen comprising a round of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors in her breast, followed by lumpectomy, another round of chemo to eradicate any remaining cancer cells, and then radiation. “You can’t play Russian roulette with cancer,” she says. “If I follow this plan, I should be cancer-free.”
When Joan’s first round of chemo began, Robin remained situated as a pillar of strength, offering some advice gleaned from her own experience: Don’t wait around for your hair to fall out. It’s just torture. Shave it off.
So she did. “I felt like G.I. Joan,” she avows. “I was so empowered by it.”
However, in the days that followed, reality set in, and the knockout blow to Joan’s self-esteem came with the loss of her eyebrows and eyelashes. “At that moment, I saw a cancer patient looking back at me,” she concedes. “I don’t want to sound superficial, that hair is so important, but it is a big part of what you look like.”
Despite her insecurities, Joan ditched her wig to pose for the cover of People magazine’s October 6 issue. “I want to share my journey in a way that takes the mystery away from all the things you have to go through with breast cancer,” she says of her decision.
Moving Forward with a Mission
Reflecting on her journey so far, Joan’s task is all the more clear. “I want to get as many women as I can to make sure that they’re doing self breast exams,” she says, especially in regard to women who have not yet had a mammogram. “Every young woman has to understand that performing self breast exams is one of her prime responsibilities to her health. We know that the earlier you catch it, the better your chances for survival. Up until your first mammogram, that’s all on you.”
Currently undergoing her second round of chemotherapy, Joan is proud to be an ongoing voice for breast cancer survivors. “My going public, allowing People magazine to take that picture, all of this – to say it’s been worthwhile is the understatement of my life,” says Joan. “If my life was defined by what I have been able to do in terms of breast cancer, I would be happy.”
Keep up with Joan as she blogs about her cancer journey on her website, JoanLunden.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2014.