Joan Lunden on Challenges, Guilt and Caregiving
Her breast cancer battle and selfless life story are inspiring
When she stepped onto the stage at a recent AARP convention, Joan Lunden looked as sunny and radiant as she always has. Famous as the 17-year co-host on Good Morning America in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lunden later transformed into a healthy living guru and businesswoman who inspires everyone she touches.
She came to talk to the gathered boomer-and-beyond crowd about caregiving — a role she had played with her mother, who died in 2013. But with bright eyes and a perfectly coifed hairstyle, Lunden said she wanted first to address “the elephant in the room.” A month earlier, Lunden, 64, had gone public with the news that she was one of the 232,670 new cases of breast cancer among women in the U.S.
She told the group that she had just finished 12 weeks of chemotherapy and would enter another round in a couple of weeks. As she smiled at the supportive crowd, Lunden seemed strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Triumphs and Challenges
Lunden’s life has been a series of triumphs and challenges. As a young girl, she lost her father, a cancer surgeon, in a plane crash. As she began her career as a TV broadcast journalist 30 years ago, she also became a caregiver both to her brother, who had health complications from type 2 diabetes, and to her mother, who was eventually diagnosed with dementia. What Lunden didn’t know at the time, she says, is that caring for her brother and mother simultaneously is when her caregiving journey began.
After GMA, she became a health advocate, writing books, making speeches and continuing to bring her California-girl sunshine to the masses, all the while crisscrossing the country from her East Coast home to the brother and mother who needed her care on the West Coast.
After divorcing her first husband, Lunded found love again with current husband, Jeff Konigsberg, only to face infertility issues and opt for surrogacy to have her last four children (two sets of twins who joined Lunden’s three older daughters from her first marriage).
An Optimistic Nature
I met Lunden in 2010 when she interviewed me as a caregiving expert on a special RLTV program called Taking Care with Joan Lunden. Since then, I have interviewed her a few times and have always been amazed by her boundless energy, her “you can do it” attitude and her genuine interest in people and their lives. Although Lunden's own life reads like a Lifetime movie, her roller-coaster ride has never affected her exuberance.
Lunden credits her parents for her optimism. She said, “My mom was the ultimate positive thinker and my dad was a doer.”
It is this positive outlook that makes Lunden a lifeforce which I know will help her conquer breast cancer and is what made her a model caregiver. Her education as a caregiver is now empowering her as a cancer warrior.
For instance, Lunden told me she had felt guilt over not moving her mother closer during her final years. Eventually, Lunden realized a move would not have solved anything. Lunden was traveling constantly and would not have had much more time to care for her mother even if she had lived down the street. The staff at the California dementia-care home where her mom lived reminded Lunden that the periods between visits were inconsequential to someone with dementia who has lost the ability to understand space and time.
Lunden also expressed guilt over being diagnosed with breast cancer. Advocating for healthy eating much of her adult life, she says she felt that somehow she must have done something wrong along the way. But guilt can sap energy, Lunden realized. She also understands that the strength and energy she now needs to battle cancer is similar to the stamina she needed to care for her loved ones. Letting go of guilt is the ingredient for a strong emotional core during caregiving challenges.
Finding the Silver Linings
Lunden also looks for the silver linings in life — a lesson all caregivers need to heed in order to push through difficult and overwhelming feelings.
Lunden realized she had to let go of trying to bring her mother back into her daughter's world. When she showed her mother photos of her grown daughters, her mom would express confusion or lack of interest in not knowing these people. Lunden then realized she had to step into her mom’s world.
So when she swapped the photos with ones of her and her brother as children and included some of her parents as young newlyweds, her mother’s face lit up. Along the way, Lunden learned new things about her parent’s early life that she felt she would have missed if her mother did not have the cognitive impairment that made them both refresh memories from long ago.
Regarding her own cancer, Lunden said her silver lining is in recognizing the irony of losing her adored father who was a cancer surgeon. His plane crashed returning from a conference where he was training other cancer doctors.
When Lunden was first diagnosed, she pondered whether to go public about it. As she told the AARP crowd, “I thought it was ridiculous I could stay private with this news — it would break somehow. But my second thought was: I had always wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps and become a surgeon, but scalpels and blades where not my thing. However, my dad gave his life training others about cancer — now I can follow his footsteps and do the same thing.”
As I look at the beautiful, bold, bald cover photo of Lunden on this week’s People magazine, it is clear she is our teacher, our healer, our cheerleader and our role model in caregiving and in caring for ourselves.