Health & Fitness

Joan Lunden on breast cancer: ‘It’s OK to ask for help’

Joan Lunden speaks to the Hollywood Memorial Wellness and Empowerment Forum, hosted by Memorial Cancer Institute, addressing the theme “Strategies for Success: Women’s Path to Power and Reinvention.”
Joan Lunden speaks to the Hollywood Memorial Wellness and Empowerment Forum, hosted by Memorial Cancer Institute, addressing the theme “Strategies for Success: Women’s Path to Power and Reinvention.”

As a longtime co-anchor of “Good Morning America” and an established journalist, Joan Lunden was familiar with the statistics for getting breast cancer.

She just never thought she’d be the 1 in 8.

“I didn't think it would happen to me,” she said recently to a room full of mostly women at the Hollywood Memorial Cancer Institute Wellness and Empowerment Forum. “I mistakenly walked through life feeling kind of immune. I am not alone in thinking that way.”

That was three years ago — before she became a breast-cancer statistic.

Lunden, now 66 and in remission, travels across the country urging woman to be proactive and take control of their health. She has written a book about her cancer saga, called “Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival” (Harper). Most recently, she lobbied Congress to pass the Breast Density Reporting Act, which would mandate that mammography reports include information about breast density, notifying women if their breast tissue is too dense for a mammogram. (The bill died in the last Congress and hasn’t been reintroduced.)

“It’s so great to be here in with you in Florida,” she said, after a standing ovation. “In fact, after the last few years of battling cancer, it’s just great to be here period. And look, my hair grew back, so life is good.”

The free forum, which attracted hundreds of people, was followed by fund-raising reception for the Pink Angels Memorial Foundation, which raises money for woman receiving treatment in the Memorial system.

“We wanted to get someone that could really deliver the message of women wellness and empowerment and how to take matter into your own hands,” said Maggie Wiegandt, vice president of oncology services for Memorial Healthcare Systems. “[Lunden] is a well-known survivor.’’

By sharing her story, Lunden said she tries to motivate to be vigilant when it comes to their health. She said she was guilty of skipping a yearly mammogram once in a while, as many women do.

“That kind of nonchalant thinking is really, really dangerous,” she said.

Three years ago, she went for her regular mammogram and it came back fine. But she credits an interview she had with Dr. Susan Love several years before for knowing to ask for an ultrasound. Lunden said she has dense breasts and a mammogram wouldn’t necessarily detect abnormalities.

“It’s like finding a snowball in a snowstorm,” she said.

The ultrasound revealed she had triple negative cancer in her right breast, which is an aggressive, fast-growing cancer. She underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and radiation.

When she was first diagnosed with cancer, she approached it with her typical ‘I can-do’ attitude. Lunden said it was that spirit that eventually led her to “Good Morning America,” which she co-anchored from 1980 to 1997.

Born in California, Lunden first thought she’d follow in her dad’s footsteps of being a doctor, but then realized that wasn’t for her. At that time, she told the Hollywood audience, there was a push to get woman on the news and someone happened to mention it to her at dinner.

She said she called her local TV station and eventually became the weather girl. The weather girl turned into a consumer reporter, a street reporter and then anchor. Eventually, “Good Morning America” called.

“That call was the most important thing I ever did in my life,” she said. “I kind of discovered that if you wait around for something good to happen to you, you could wait a very long time. I really don’t think anyone was coming to my house to discover me and put me on TV.”

As her career blossomed, so did her responsibilities. A mother of seven — including two sets of twins — Lunden said managing a career and her family was a challenge.

Her advice to women is simple: Ask for help.

“What we do, is just do it all and we are martyrs about it, and we’re exhausted and we’re stressed out and resentful,” she said. “I don’t know if women truly understand the toll that that behavior takes on our health.”

Throughout her career, which included covering four U.S. presidents and five Olympic Games, Lunden said she learned a lot about her strength and determination.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, she knew she had to use her position to help others, which is why she posed for the cover of People magazine after losing her hair to cancer treatments. Two years ago, she was in South Florida for the 32nd annual Miami Breast Cancer Meeting, which drew hundreds of doctors from across United States.

For Shamena Khan, 49, listening to Lunden’s story was like listening to her own.

“Look at her, she is a real person,” said Khan, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2016 and is now in remission. “She is you. She is me. She heard the same words I did. And is using her story to help other people.”