There are events in life for which one can prepare: having a baby, paying taxes, deal- ing with aging parents. But a cancer diagnosis is not one of those things, especially when you have no family history and have spent much of your career advocating for health and wellness. And journalist, author and television host, Joan Lunden, was blind- sided by the news.
“I was one of those people that just never thought I would be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Lunden says. “I didn’t think I’d be one of the statistics because I didn’t have it in my family. So I kind of walked around feeling pretty immune. Mistakenly, of course. Had I known that less than 15 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer ever had a family history, I would not have felt so immune.”
On June 5, 2014, Lunden was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. “I remember the day I got diagnosed. I’d sat down with my breast cancer surgeon and she looked at all my results and she said, ‘You know,’ in a very serious tone, ‘you have triple negative breast cancer.’ And at first I thought, well, that sounds good. At least I’m negative to three things,” Lunden says with a small laugh. “That’s how little I knew about it!”
Lunden’s doctor explained that when assessing a tumor, its cells are tested for hor- mone receptors: estrogen, progesterone and HER2. If all three of these tests are “nega- tive,” then the cancer is triple negative. Though there are various treatments for breast cancer, most are hormone-targeted therapy; Lunden’s only choice was chemotherapy. There was a time — albeit a short time — when Lunden considered trying to hide her diagnosis. But that thought quickly passed.
“Here, all of a sudden, was a chapter that if I chose to step out and be public with it, might actually have an opportunity to help other people,” Lunden says. When Lunden speaks at the Vail Breast Cancer Awareness Group’s (VBCAG) 25th An- nual Celebration of Life Luncheon on July 26, she will have passed the five-year mark since being diagnosed. For triple-negative breast cancer, that’s considered a clean bill of health. But that’s not stopping Lunden from sharing what she learned during her journey.
“This, our 25th anniversary, is a special year for us,” says Brenda Himelfarb, president and co-founder of the Vail Breast Cancer Awareness Group. “We are looking forward to sharing our joy with Joan. Over the years, her work as a broadcaster and author, her involve- ment with nonprofits and her ability to raise so much awareness about breast cancer has been an inspiration.”
For the past 25 years, the VBCAG, which is comprised of volunteers, has raised more than $1.5 million — which supports those in Eagle County who are diagnosed with the disease. Donations to the Sonnenalp Breast & Diag- nostic Imaging Center at the Shaw Cancer Center have included funds for the purchase of various diagnostic equipment including a PET scanner, a stereotactic table for its radia- tion department, a 3D tomography machine and a GE Whole Breast Automated Ultrasound System. Additionally, the group has donated $60,000 to Jack’s Place, a Cancer Caring House. More than 300 women have received a Day to Play, a VBCAG program that provides funds to relieve the stress of treatment, and more than 30 women have each received more than $2,000 in assistance.
“It’s heart-warming to see how much how many people and families in our community that, over the years, the VBCAG has been able to help,” Himelfarb said.
Lunden echoes this sentiment. Through her own experiences, she’s realized that there s so much that women need to know about breast health and about protecting them- selves. She’s working to clear up the confu- sion on mammograms (when and how often to have them) and urging women to be their own proponents in the doctor’s office, knowing if they have dense breast tissue and asking for the ultrasound in addition to the mammogram when it’s necessary.
“I think we [women] are wired to take care of everybody else. We’re caretakers and caretak- ers don’t always take the best care of them- selves,” Lunden says. “They need me. They need that annoying little gnat, to come along and say, ‘I’m here. I’m going to ask you the question. You don’t have to say it out loud but answer it in your own head.’”
Do you know if you have dense breast tis- sue? If you do, have you asked for an ultra- sound in addition to a mammogram? For a woman who has had so many roles in her life, from co-host of Good Morning Ameri- ca to mother to author and more, Lunden says she’s enjoying this new role as an advocate. It’s not one she asked for, but she’s encourag- ing women to become more knowledgeable for the sake of their own health.
“I’ve really enjoyed the role,” Lunden says. “I never get tired of it.”