Joan Lunden’s Lessons of Cancer in ‘Had I Known’

The former TV host says the disease made her look at life anew

When former Good Morning America host Joan Lunden was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, she decided she had the power to educate other women and raise awareness of the issues surrounding the disease.

She has followed through, with speaking engagements across the country, a website called Alive with Joan and a new book, Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival.

In the book, her TV-host perkiness comes through in abundance. What Lunden also offers is a no-holds-barred critique of some medical practices she learned of the hard way. For instance, medical providers have typically (until recently, in some states) failed to inform women with breast dense tissue that mammograms alone are often not enough for a cancer diagnosis. She’s also a vocal proponent of early mammogram screening recommendations (there has been debate in the medical community about whether women should begin at 40 or 50).

The following is an excerpt from Had I Known, reprinted with permission.

Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival

When I was growing up, my mom taught me three great life lessons I’ve carried with me:

First — Always be positive.

Second — Expect great things out of life.

Every one of us who has battled cancer lives with the knowledge that it could return.

And third — Whenever things get tough, always expect a better tomorrow. Mom was not born to a rich family and lived an extremely humble life. When she finally found love and security with my father, it was dramatically ripped away from her when he died. If anyone had a reason for being somewhat leery of life, she did. And yet her positive attitude was so effusive, it was downright contagious. So believe me, I learned from the best.

Support from Fellow Survivors

Over the course of my treatment, I read countless tweets and Facebook messages from people who encouraged me daily to “stay positive” and not give up the fight. They were important in my recovery because I felt a bond and connection with those who had walked the path before me, those who knew where I was headed and could hold my hand and lead me through the darkest days with their words, observations and experiences.

Out of everything I received, the overwhelmingly consistent message was how important maintaining a positive attitude is when you are battling a disease. But only those who have gone through the battle against cancer really know how hard and scary it is! You just have to remember not to let a bad day make you feel like you have a bad life.

However, cancer is a powerful and daunting opponent.

Cancer looks you in the eye like a big angry bull with huge pointy horns, ferociously breathing as though he’s ready to attack and head-butt you into some other stratosphere at any moment.

You would think that the further along I got in my cancer treatments, the more chemo I’d sent pulsing through my body, and the more radiation I allowed into my system, the more relieved I would be, right?

As if I stared that damn bull down, and at some point he went running off in the other direction and I won.

Nagging Worries

Ironically, for many, including me, the closer to the end of our treatments we get, the more worried we become about whether we truly beat the cancer. And when you are completely finished with all of your treatments and everyone is cheering you, “You’re done, you beat it, and it’s all over!,” you want to join them in that joy, believe that it’s all over, but it takes a while to embrace that.

And that’s OK.

Joan Lunden Had I Known Book CoverEvery one of us who has battled cancer lives with the knowledge that it could return. Carly Simon wrote an entire album about having the chemo blues, the depression that followed her breast cancer treatment. I can tell you that as hard as you try to be reasonable, it is difficult not to experience some anxiety and to think: Did we really get it all, or am I waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Of course, being the research junkie that I am, I Googled “What is the effect of worry and stress on cancer growth?” Research indicates that stress can alter the immune system function. In turn, immune system function can alter tumor growth and response. Obviously, worrying wasn’t going to do me any good!

Facing Down the Fear

The key to being a survivor is not letting that fear overwhelm you. You must find the strength and courage within yourself to let go of the fear and enjoy life; otherwise, the monumental battle you just fought to overcome your cancer will have been for nothing.

I had to remember not to allow myself to waste precious time.

Time fearing a recurrence, because that may not happen.

Time with loved ones, because they matter more to me today than ever.

Time doing things I’m passionate about, because what’s the point of doing things you don’t love?

Time taking care of myself, because my health matters.

Time focused on things I can do something about and not on things I can’t change.

Time enjoying the moments because they pass so quickly.

Time acting on things NOW because tomorrow might be too late.

Time . . . it is so very precious.

Life, Through a Different Lens

In terms of my entire life, this nine-month battle against breast cancer has been a blip on the radar screen for me. As daunting as my fight has been, it did not break me. Not even close. I am grateful to still have that mind-set.

Being able to see my disease from that point of view helped me change my focus, as if it were a lens on a camera that helped me go from a close-up view — which we all know makes things look proportionately bigger — to a panoramic view, which ultimately helps put everything into greater perspective.

When faced with such a threat against your mere existence, you do begin to appreciate life so much more. You look at each and every day through that new lens.

As I looked out my window from my lakeside home last summer in Maine, I saw the sun glistening off the lake. It was a more gorgeous sight than I remembered it being in past years. In fact, I seemed to appreciate every detail of that view more, just as I do my life these days.

If there is one, that is the silver lining of cancer.
 It certainly makes you more appreciative of life.

A woman on Facebook wrote to me about this epiphany: A wise friend of mine explained it all like being given a present wrapped in barbed wire!

How true!

By Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. She previously spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul.@EmilyGurnon

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