Joan Lunden: 'I'm a Warrior'



Joan Lunden was only planning on getting a spray tan. But when she walked into a salon in Greenwich, Conn., on June 25, one week after finishing up her first round of chemotherapy as part of her fight against breast cancer, she was suddenly inspired to do something far more bold. Having come to terms with the fact that she would soon be losing her trademark blonde hair, Lunden had a moment of revelation before the tanning could begin. “I thought, ‘The only thing worse than a bald head is a pink bald head,’ ” Lunden recalls, sinking into the couch at her vacation home in Maine in August, wearing a black bandanna over the blonde hairpiece she now sports regularly. So without thinking twice, the former Good Morning America cohost had her mane buzzed off, compliments of a quiet stylist named Juan. Then she snapped a selfie of the work-in-progress and fired off a text to her daughters, who had planned to be present for moral support at an eventual haircut. “You wonder how your hair is going to fall out, when it’s going to fall out. I knew I was going to lose it,” Lunden says plainly, “so I decided to just own it.”

Impulsive? Yes. But getting an impromptu buzz cut was perhaps not a surprising move, considering Lunden, 64, nicknamed Bazooka Joan by her kids for her boundless energy, has long been known for her bravado. During her 17 years hosting GMA from 1980 to 1997, she climbed Alaska’s famed Mendenhall Glacier and bungee jumped off a 143-ft. bridge. In 2003, after marrying second husband Jeff Konigsberg, she became one of the first celebrities to talk about the issue of infertility, when she opened up to PEOPLE about using a surrogate to have twins at age 52—Kate and Max, now 11—a process she then repeated two years later, welcoming a second set of twins, Kim and Jack, now 9. (She is also mom to Lindsay, 31, Jamie, 34, and Sarah, 27, with ex Michael Krauss.) Her husband, for one, was not surprised. “That’s just Joan,” says Konigsberg. “She’s totally fearless.”

She’s only grown fiercer over the past three months, since learning she had tested positive for stage 2 triple- negative breast cancer, a rare form of the disease that does not respond to targeted treatment and constitutes an estimated 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers. Now, as she prepares for a weeklong series of segments about her crusade on the Today show, Lunden is opening up about her cancer experience in hopes of helping other women suffering from the disease. “I didn’t even want to tell the world at first,” she confesses a few weeks later. She has just completed a PEOPLE photo shoot, taking a deep breath before removing her wig and posing bald. “It’s not an easy thing to go through, and it almost sounds superficial, but when you take away your hair, it just changes the way you look at yourself,” she says. “You feel less feminine, less desirable,” she adds, reaching for a tissue, “and as a mom, you don’t want your kids to be concerned.” Deciding to pose without her wig “wasn’t the comfortable way to go, but every now and again you get an opportunity to do something that can maybe make a difference in the world. I decided I was going to try to help others and show women this is not the end of the world. You can go on. And that was hugely empowering.”

That attitude has served her well during her treatment so far. “There was never a ‘Why me?’ moment, even when she was first diagnosed,” her husband says. “I was in awe of the way she responded.” Explains Lunden: “You have all these decisions to make, and you have to make them quickly. I had no choice but to go into warrior mode and take this head-on.” That meant launching straight into treatment and selecting a course of action—something Lunden says was no easy task.

Despite her having access to top breast cancer experts, “there’s such a disparity in the advice people give you about which path to take,” she says. “You go to three oncologists, and they all tell you to treat it in a different way. That’s a really scary position to be put in. It can paralyze someone.” After a meeting with Dr. Ruth Oratz, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s School of Medicine, Lunden settled on a relatively unorthodox course of treatment, given the recent high-profile stories of celebrities opting for mastectomies first and foremost, often allowing for chemotherapy to be avoided. Lunden’s treatment plan calls for chemotherapy first, not the typical mastectomy or lumpectomy, with the goal of shrinking her two tumors so surgery can be minimal. (Surgery would then be followed by radiation, only if needed; see sidebar.)

Because of the location of her tumors near the back of her breast, Lunden would have been left with two very different-looking breasts and would have required extensive reconstructive surgery had she opted for a mastectomy or even a lumpectomy, a route Lunden says she felt at peace not taking, despite their rise in popularity. “My doctor said, ‘We can do a really big breast cancer surgery right now, or we can flood you, bomb you, with cancer-killing chemo and then do a very tiny surgery,’ ” Lunden recalls. The particularly potent chemo formulation she chose “is very toxic, but the doctor told me she was convinced if I took this course of action I wouldn’t have any cancer left.” Despite a second opinion that differed from Oratz’s suggestion, Lunden says, “I thought it was pretty obvious which one I should go with.”

Taking the “all-in approach,” Lunden completely revamped her diet, eliminating all dairy, sugar and grains and exercising every day to keep up her strength. “She didn’t just sit every day,” says Dr. Tracey Weisberg, her oncologist at New England Cancer Specialists in Scarborough, Maine. “She had a routine, and that helped to keep her muscles strong and her energy level up.”

All the while Lunden carried on with business as usual. Between planning her daughter Lindsay’s baby shower (Lunden became a grandmother for the first time on Aug. 30), hosting 200 people at her annual women’s retreat, Camp Reveille (see box), and watching Kate and Max graduate from elementary school, she barely had time to think about the reality of what she was dealing with. But Lunden says her emotions caught up with her eight weeks into her treatment, when, during a tennis game with her daughters, she tripped and took a hard fall. With her balance and reflexes affected by chemo, the usually sporty Lunden was momentarily stunned into silence. Then, “as I walked back to the house, I just lost it,” Lunden says. “Everyone always looks at me as so strong, but I was completely unglued, and once it started it didn’t stop.” Feeling physically weak and emotionally beaten down, “I read some fan letters and came across one from a woman whose daughter had died of breast cancer,” she says. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, I could actually die from this. What if I don’t get rid of this?’ It was a pretty sobering moment.”

But as she’s continued with treatment, Lunden says, she refuses to wallow in self-pity. “You want to live on the ‘I’m going to beat this’ side of things,” she says. “I have always been a positive person. And I just tell myself, ‘You can’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.’ ” A battle one week with her insurance company—which was stalling in covering a drug crucial to her regimen that would have otherwise cost several thousand dollars—and the amount of time she’s been able to devote to treatment serve as reminders of “how lucky I am. What if you don’t win against your insurance company? Or have insurance at all? Or the time to take the better part of a week off to get treatment? How many bosses are okay with that?” she asks.

As it turns out, she may have even more reason to feel grateful. After 12 weeks of chemotherapy, Lunden got some shocking—and very promising—news: Her tumors had shrunk by nearly 95 percent, meaning the second and more difficult phase of chemotherapy (which included a drug referred to by many cancer patients as “the red death”) is no longer necessary.

Now, with surgery to remove the remaining mass scheduled for Sept. 23, Lunden is focusing on her recovery (according to her doctors, her prognosis is good, and they are confident she will be cancer-free following surgery) and the road ahead. “You have this decision to make: I could decide to do nothing and just go back to business as usual, but that is certainly not in my personality,” says Lunden, who will continue blogging about her experience on JoanLunden .com. “Breast cancer is a tough, challenging journey, and I want to go out there and help people.” With her 11-year-olds bursting through the kitchen door, Lunden looks around and smiles. “I just got handed the opportunity to turn something bad into something good. And that,” she says, “is the most amazing thing.”

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