Joan Lunden's Daughters' Advice on Battling Cancer
Their six tips for young adults, based on experience with their mom
There comes a point in every parent’s life when we need to count on our kids.
And I’m not talking about the small stuff — like getting help with the remote.
I recently spoke with Joan Lunden about this topic. The former Good Morning America co-host, author, speaker and caregiver advocate has been learning what it’s like to receive your children’s support as she battles breast cancer.
“My older girls launched into protective mode immediately,” she said. “They told me, ‘We’ll be with you every step of the way,’ and they or my husband have been at every single chemo or doctor’s appointment I’ve been to.”
Lunden likes to joke that she had seven children (she also has two sets of twins, ages 11 and 9), so the odds would be in her favor that one of them would take care of her as she got older.
“I’m the Energizer Bunny type who’s always been a pillar of strength,” Lunden said. “But especially the older girls rallied like crazy after my diagnosis. It has allowed me to experience being cared for and to feel their love and loyalty in a new, enhanced way. It has increased my capacity to love and appreciate my family.”
(MORE: What's Your Caregiving IQ?)
After talking with Lunden, I wondered what it had been like for her young adult daughters to step in to help their strong, optimistic, indomitable mother. So I asked each to answer a set of questions about how they’ve cared for the parent who has always taken care of them.
Cancer Diagnosis and Rallying
When Lunden broke the news, her daughters almost couldn’t believe it, because their mother has always been so strong. Seeing her as vulnerable and imagining the worst followed that sense of disbelief.
“You think, ‘What happens if this doesn’t end well?’ But then you push that thought from your mind, because that’s not how we were raised to think,” Jaimie wrote. “We were raised to latch on to the silver lining of any situation and figure out how to navigate from there.”
So they did. When their mom told them she’d be fine and didn’t need them to come along for medical appointments, they showed up anyway.
“Sure, she’ll be fine,” wrote Sarah. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going with her!” It’s about support, the daughters agreed — simply being there, not necessarily to say everything will be OK, but to let their mom know she is loved and cared for, no matter what.
To be sure, Lunden doesn’t see her situation exactly as being cared for in the way she cared for her aging mother with dementia, for whom the outcome, Lunden said, was inevitable. “I’ve got cancer, I’m getting treatment and I’ll get better,” she said.
“I don’t know that we look at it as (our mom) ‘accepting care,’” Jamie wrote. "I view it as ‘going into battle together.’ There is nothing about my mom that suggests ‘frail’ or in need of ‘babying.’”
Yet, the daughters have intuited when their mom needs help sometimes, knowing for instance if she “just doesn’t have it in her to cook dinner that evening,” Sarah wrote. “We never treat her like she is sick, but she knows when she needs help, and we also recognize it when she may not even realize it.”
Giving and Receiving
All three young women agreed their mom was there for them, “for anything we have ever needed,” as Lindsay put it.
Joan traveled the country and world to support Jamie at horseback riding tournaments. She once got young hockey fan Sarah into a behind-the-scenes celebration to hang out with her favorite team, the New York Rangers.
Now, her daughters are thrilled to be there for her.
Lindsay had run Joan’s company and was planning to be out on maternity leave when the cancer diagnosis came. Joan called Sarah to ask if she could quit her job and move home from California to fill in for Lindsay, who then spent a month training with her sister.
And Lindsay made Joan a grandmother. “She is so into my daughter, Parker,” Lindsay said. “It’s so cute! It brings me so much joy to see that in a moment where cancer casts a shadow over life, my daughter has helped bring some smiles and excitement.”
“The most rewarding part is getting to give back to her even a fraction of the time, love and support she gave to us all these years,” Jamie said. “The most difficult part is not being able to wave a magic wand and make it all go away.”
6 Pieces of Advice From Joan Lunden’s Daughters
So what advice do Lunden’s daughters have for other young adults who may need to support their parents through an illness? Here's what they said:
1. Understand your role: No one person can do everything, so figure out how you can be helpful. Then act.
2. Make informed decisions: Instead of listening to worst-case scenarios that people may want to share, listen to your own medical advisers and those you trust.
3. Pull together: Form a support team and trust that each person is doing what she can to help.
4. Be present: It’s often enough to just sit quietly with the person you’re helping. Lunden’s daughters mentioned working on puzzles with their mom during chemo appointments or working on laptops side-by-side. Just being there can be enough.
5. Take care of yourself: All mentioned the importance of self-care, a lesson likely learned from their mom’s years as a caregiver for her mother. Whether it’s doing yoga, exercising or talking through feelings, find a release that lets you re-energize.
6. Find joy: Staying positive is difficult in the face of uncertainty with a disease like cancer. But as Jamie put it: “You must find the silver lining, and for us, it’s brought our family even closer. Plus, we’ve had a lot of laughs — don’t forget to laugh!”