Perfection is really irritating, especially first thing in the morning — which may be why for 20 years, Joan Lunden was so beloved as co-host of “Good Morning America.” Sunny and soothing if you tuned in before your caffeine hit, she nevertheless distinguished herself by not being perfect. Though always beautiful, she struggled with weight, went through a very public divorce and juggled kids and family like the rest of us. But she was always game, a supremely cheerful enthusiast — whether she was interviewing a president or bungee jumping off a bridge. Lunden was also an outspoken advocate for women’s health issues before they were the fodder for every morning television show.
Yet none of this prepared her for a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly insidious form of the disease, which demanded nine months of aggressive treatment: a lumpectomy, radiation and 16 rounds of chemotherapy. Diagnosed in 2014, she is now cancer-free and crisscrossing the country speaking to health organizations and raising awareness. But I realized, as we sat down to talk, that behind the rainbows and unicorns she sometimes espouses in her speeches, Lunden is a vulnerable woman, wife and mother who is still struggling to come to terms with life after cancer — what she calls the “new normal.”
Q: You’re celebrating more than a year of being cancer-free — you look great, but how do you feel?
A: You know, the time after treatment can sometimes be more emotionally difficult than during treatment. At least during, you’ve put yourself in the hands of these doctors, and everyone’s doing everything they can. You’re taking medication, and you’re fighting. Then, all of a sudden one day, they say, “OK, bye!” And you walk out the door and — well, I know I’m not alone in this, but I was an emotional basket case.
Q: Describe to me what it was like when chemo was over and you had your very last radiation treatment.
A: My husband, Jeff Konigsberg, took me to get a necklace with a little pink stone that I’ve worn most days since. So that was like a little “let’s celebrate.” But I thankfully had been warned by the nurses that while everyone thinks you want to go celebrate, it’s interestingly and oddly emotionally difficult. They were right. I cried like a baby.
Q: You certainly haven’t talked about the “gift” of cancer, but you’ve talked about the silver linings. What are they?
A: Cancer reconnected me with my father. He was a cancer surgeon and died in a plane crash when I was 13. I realized that my dad’s light had been taken before his time and he had so much left to do. And that I was now in a position where I could pick up his legacy and carry on. That was meaningful to me — it was therapeutic, healing.
Q: How has having cancer changed you?
A: I’m not the same person I was two years ago. For one thing, I was always preaching to people about making healthy lifestyle choices, and it really took kind of getting hit between the eyes with a two-by-four to change my life — to really read food labels, for example. I’ve always been so driven, but now I’m stopping to ask myself about every venture. Am I expending too much work for not enough reward? I’ve just gone through very aggressive chemotherapy, and it really does take a toll on your body. There’s no getting around it.
Q: You often call yourself a “glass-half-full kind of girl.” But certainly this diagnosis must have been an incredible challenge to maintaining that attitude. Was there a point where you asked, “Why me?”
A: Never. It didn’t even occur to me. I’ve been taken to task on social media for talking about how important it is to have a positive attitude. And it’s usually people who have metastatic breast cancer, and they know they’re going to die, and you know, “Positive attitude isn’t going to cure us.”
But a positive attitude will certainly make the time you’re here on Earth more palatable and will certainly keep the fight in you to keep fighting to live until maybe we even find a better treatment for you. It will keep that fight stronger. There have been studies that show that patients who have a positive attitude and are optimistic have a better immune system, and they heal better, they recover better.
Q: This reminds me of the song you once said was your anthem: Carole King’s “Beautiful.”
A: Yes, I’ve tried to live those words: “You’ve got to get up every morning / with a smile on your face / and show the world / all the love in your heart.”
Q: And now it seems you’ve taken that love and are turning it toward other women with your advocacy work.
A: I have considered it one of those odd gifts from above that you get an opportunity to help other people go through dire diagnoses. Maybe by telling my story, I make women more vigilant. I know that I was a person who paid lip service to self-exams — but come on, let’s be honest, I didn’t do them. And I didn’t think I needed to because I didn’t have a family history. So breast cancer was someone else’s worry.
Q: Right. It’s like, “Something will get me, but not THAT!”
A: Yes. Now that it’s happened to me, I guess I feel compelled to go out there and warn other women and make them more aware and make them more vigilant. And understand it’s not just about family history. It’s about the lifestyle choices that we make: whether or not we exercise, what we’re consuming, our stress levels, our lack of sleep. And all the other risk factors that can make us susceptible not only to breast cancers but all the other cancers.
Q: But surely you don’t blame yourself for getting cancer.
A: There is a certain sensibility of, “How could I not have known?” You know, I was such a health advocate.
Q: But you really did lead a healthy life, particularly compared with the average American.
A: I hear people all the time say that I did everything right. However, there are other risk factors we don’t even think about that are kind of a factor of American life. We get married later, so we have children later. Well, if you have children after 30, that’s a risk factor. There are many women today who have trouble getting pregnant, so they have fertility treatments. That’s a risk factor. I took birth control pills for years — yes, I did. So I did IVF — yes, I did. So I had children late — yes, I did. I took hormone therapy — yes, I did.
Q: But your cancer was triple negative, meaning you did not have receptors for the hormones in the HT drugs, so it couldn’t have been fueled by the therapy. But OK, would you really have not taken HT?
A: I don’t know. Can I really say that I wouldn’t have? Let’s face it, you do it for all these reasons, to stay vibrant, to not have hot flashes.
Q: You seem so much younger than you are, and I don’t mean just in looks. Do you have an age you are in your head?
A: Forty-five! I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that I’m 65. To me that’s totally not possible. I wear leggings and boots! I work out and climb mountains! I’m a young person! But of course, if you ask anyone, “What is a senior person?” that answer is: 15 years older than you are.
Q: And it probably helps that you’re married to someone 10 years younger.
A: Here’s something: When I was 29 years old, I got married to a guy who was 39 years old. We had three kids, but our likes and life were so disparate. You know, like, he wanted to go to jazz clubs and I wanted to go to a Pearl Jam concert. We were just so different, and so we got divorced. Twenty years later, I got married again when I was 49 — and again I married a guy who was 39. Again.
Q: What other emotional factors have played a role in your recovery?
A: For the first 40 years of my life, I was incredibly shallow! I didn’t really introduce my real self to my spiritual side until I turned 40 and decided to take care of my health and change my life. I lost about 40 pounds, changed how I ate and added exercise to my life. And I don’t think it’s that unusual for people who take control of their body on the outside to look for change on the inside. What if I could be more peaceful, more mindful? That’s where spirituality entered my life.
Q: How does mindfulness help you control your reactions to stress, fear and anger?
A: I think most people believe how you react to events is not a choice. But you do have a choice. A simple example: Sometimes when I’m driving and I get all stressed out about something, I’ll say, “Wait a second. Do you really want to go there?”
Q: Certainly one event that could have sparked a reaction was losing your hair. Do you still have the hair you buzzed off before chemo?
A: Yes! It’s in a piece of tinfoil in the back of my drawer. I can’t explain why I saved that hair. I also have all my wigs.
Q: You’ve kept the wigs?
A: It’s too fresh. Too recent. Too real. Too unbelievable to be able to give them away and feel comfortable with that.
Q: Do you still keep a journal?
A: Yes. I’ve done that for years. And I always title my journals.
Q: What’s your latest one called?
A: “I Will Survive.”
Q: So does that mean your anthem has changed from “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face”?
A: Now I think it’s “Fight Song” — it’s the song played at all breast cancer events. I’ve done 15 breast cancer events in the past few weeks, and I’ve always walked out on stage to that song.
“This is my fight song / Take back my life song / Prove I’m all right song / My power’s turned on / Starting right now I’ll be strong”
I just met the artist, Rachel Platten. It’s a song that can mean something different for everyone, but she told me, “I worked for 16 years to try to make a career in music, and I’d just about given up, and then I wrote that song. I still have the fight left in me.”
And I put my arms around her and said, “Do you have any idea of how much you have empowered women battling breast cancer?”
And both of us were in tears.