When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2014, Joan Lunden became a cancer warrior and a fastidious chronicler of her experiences. In her book, Had I Known: A Memoir of Cancer written with Laura Morton and in the blog that she started after her diagnosis, Lunden invited readers to peer over her shoulder and listen in as she faced her “breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment head-on,” and bravely revealed “the good, the bad, and the bald ugly truth.”
Lunden’s openness is her trademark. Long before social media made revealing personal information a quotidian event, Lunden, who spent 17 years as co-host of Good Morning, America, welcomed the audience into her life, sharing the birth of her children, divorce and remarriage. Even after she left the show, she talked openly about her struggles with infertility and the birth of her twins via surrogacy when Lunden was 54.
Lunden’s cancer wasn’t picked up during her annual mammogram. Luckily, years earlier, Dr. Susan Love, a renowned breast cancer researcher, advised Lunden that women like her who have dense breasts should request a sonogram. Lunden had been doing that for a few years and it was the sonogram that revealed two lumps and a suspicious lesion. Following a biopsy, Lunden got the dreaded diagnosis: triple negative breast cancer, a type of cancer that doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy. Chemotherapy was her only recourse. And so began her nine-month stay in Cancerland. Of course, Lunden’s celebrity status gave her access to the top practitioners. She names them, explains what they told her and details how she decided on her specific treatment.
Lunden doesn’t come off as relentlessly stoic or saintly. She fully admits to plenty of bad days and nights. She credits her husband, seven children, friends and a countless strangers for cheering her up and cheering her on. But that kind of support, she understands, isn’t always available. “The more time I spent in hospitals, the more apparent it became that not everyone had that luxury,” she writes, adding that small acts of kindness make a monumental difference to someone dealing with cancer. For example: Sit with someone who’s going through chemo or radiation; read to him or her; take them a home-cooked meal.
Today, Lunden is cancer-free. She doesn’t live in fear that the cancer will come back but she lives vigilantly She continues to advocate for women facing health crises. Had I Known is one of many cancer stories. What makes Lunden’s book stand out is her frankness and her ability to simplify complex medical language and concepts. Newcomers to breast cancer land will find this book especially helpful and reassuring.