A health hero continues her advocacy work
Published on March 9, 2017
It was June 5, 2014 — a day that Joan Lunden will never forget. The health advocate and former co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America had gone to the doctor for her annual mammogram. “I got that typical, ‘You’re good to go. You’re clean,’” she remembers. But Lunden was not good to go. A subsequent ultrasound, recommended for women with dense breast tissue, revealed triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. Lunden got the ultrasound on the advice of Dr. Susan Love, the breast cancer expert she had interviewed years before on Lifetime. “What if I hadn’t done that interview?” she says by phone from her New York office. “What if they hadn’t sent me on that story on that particular day?”
Lunden announced her diagnosis on GMA, and later, after losing her hair due to chemotherapy, she appeared bald on the cover of People Magazine. The night before the photo shoot, she asked her children, “What do you guys think?” One of them said, “Oh, Mom, you could help save women’s lives. How can you possibly say no? You’ve got to do it.” Women later told Lunden that her smiling image on the magazine cover gave them the courage to deal with their own battles with breast cancer.
“Going public,” she says, “was the best decision I ever made,” giving her the chance to share her story with thousands of women across the country through her memoir, Had I Known, social media posts, and dozens of speeches each year. It was also an opportunity to continue the legacy of her late father, a cancer surgeon who died in a plane crash when she was just 13.
On March 16, Lunden will moderate the sold out “Screens, Genes & The Choices We Make,” the third annual dinner symposium presented by Susan G. Komen San Diego, at the Del Mar Marriott. The event brings together leading experts to explore the latest breakthroughs in breast cancer research, treatment, and holistic well-being, including Dr. Deborah Rhodes, a Mayo Clinic Associate Professor of Medicine and Komen scholar. Dr. Rhodes led the team that developed molecular breast imaging, shown to be hundreds of times more effective than mammograms. Honorary Chair is Gina Champion-Cain, the San Diego-based entrepreneur and businesswoman behind the Patio Restaurant Group, Swell Coffee, and LuvSurf.
Komen San Diego’s President and CEO Laura Farmer Sherman points out that the organization is San Diego County’s largest funder of local nonprofits that provide free breast cancer treatments and services, including mammograms, transportation, meal delivery, and temporary financial support. Since its founding in 1995, Komen San Diego has granted more than $18 million for treatment locally, as well as research internationally. Seventy-five percent of every dollar raised in San Diego stays here; the remaining 25 percent funds global efforts.
It’s been Sherman’s mission over the past decade to help people understand that, in her words, “First of all, breast cancer isn’t a death sentence and, secondly, if you don’t have any money in your pocket, that does not mean you die. The amount of money in your pockets should not determine whether or not you get to live.”
Like Lunden, Sherman is a breast cancer survivor. Caught up in a stressful career, she didn’t have a mammogram until she was 42, after finding a lump in one of her breasts. It was aggressive cancer. “They gave me a 50 percent chance of dying,” Sherman recalls. “And so I really struggled with, ‘What do I do now?’”
First, she had to decide whether or not she wanted to live. Her therapist had her write her own obituary for the person she was, and then she had her write an obituary for the person she really wanted to be remembered as. “Those two people were different people. And so that other person was my reason for living.”
“I remember making a promise to God. I remember the very second. I was so sick. I looked out the window; the trees were sparkling with sunlight. And I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to make it through this and I’m going to try to do something to help.’” During treatment, Sherman learned that she was the only woman in her 35-person chemo unit with insurance. “These women were selling their china, they were doing everything to scrape up the $2,500 it cost every time they had chemo. So, I thought, well, I can do something about that.” Sherman eventually quit her job, and volunteered at Komen San Diego, later becoming its longtime president.
Sherman calls the experience the best thing that ever happened to her. “I got to change my life and I started over completely again. I got out of that stressful job, I became the friend I wanted to be, I became the aunt I wanted to be. I helped work for people’s rights every day. Now I can honestly say that being in service to others is the bluebird of happiness that was really in my backyard the whole time.”
Lunden shares Sherman’s need to help others who are now going through what they did. “All of us, at some point in time, look up and make a little pact with ‘the lady upstairs.’ If you just let me make it through this, I promise you, I will put my hand out and help the next woman through,” Lunden says. “And that’s really what the breast cancer community is all about. There is this united promise and understanding among all of us that we will help the next person with their diagnosis. I can tell you going through it, it was incredibly helpful in healing.” 858.573.2760, komensandiego.org Andrea Naversen
Joan Lunden: Photo by Andrew Eccles All other photography courtesy of Renata Terra Photography