Joan’s Journey

Joan Lunden is in the pink. She’s standing in the middle of dozens of women all dressed in pink T-shirts, some breast cancer survivors, some still in the midst of chemo. As a special correspondent to the Today show, she is leading the #pinkpower celebration for NBC. Although the rainy morning has kept the party inside, the studio is filled with warmth and hope as Joan puts her arm around one bald woman who is crying, so emotional over being chosen to receive a gift of round-trip plane tickets for her family. It has been one year since Joan had her last radiation treatment. Today she is what cancer survivors call NED (no evidence of disease) following her own intense battle with triple-negative breast cancer. Already she is crisscrossing the country on a book tour for her new memoir, Had I Known; celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Good Morning America, where she was host for nearly two decades; producing content for her Alive with Joan online, streaming TV network; speaking at major breast-cancer conferences; and continuing her work with A Place for Mom, an organization that helps people find caregivers and housing for their aging parents. At age sixty-five, instead of planning typical retiree trips, Joan is creating a series of adventure trips to empower women and help them to reach places on their bucket lists (Machu Picchu, anyone?) while she chips away at her own.

At the same time, from her home in backcountry Greenwich, she and her husband, Jeff Konigsberg, are busy raising their two sets of tween twins, twelve-year-olds Kate and Max, and Kim and Jack, who are ten. You may spot the couple cheering for Jack at a Mavericks football game at the high school field or driving up the Merritt to attend one of their kids’ soccer games—they all play on travel teams. She’s close to her three older daughters too. Sarah and Lindsay both work with her at Joan Lunden Productions, and she recently welcomed her second grandchild, her daughter Jamie’s son, Mason (her toddler granddaughter calls her JoJo).

FROM WAKE-UP CALL TO WARRIOR
On June 5, 2014, at her annual breast-cancer screening, Joan’s mammogram was “clean,” but an ultrasound detected something troublesome in her right breast. Following a biopsy the next day, a Friday, radiologist Dr. Gail Calamari delivered the news. Cancer. She wouldn’t know what type until the pathology report came back after the weekend. Joan says that she was scared and in disbelief. She’s a fitness fanatic who writes books about healthy living and speaks to crowds about how to increase their longevity—how could she have cancer?

As a woman surrounded by family, Joan wanted to protect her brood that weekend and later during her rounds of chemotherapy and radiation (many of which were done at Greenwich Hospital). “I wanted life to be normal,” she says, and so she went ahead with throwing a birthday party for her twins and a baby shower for daughter Lindsay that same weekend. “Being a patient is very hard, accepting help was very hard, and accepting the fact that everybody wanted to dote over me. I would constantly say, I don’t need anyone to go with me to the doctor.” At the same time, facing down cancer brought her back in touch with her larger family of “morning friends,” her fans from her years at Good Morning America as the longest running host on early morning television. “Crazy as it is, my breast cancer reconnected them to me. Everyone I was connected to during GMA has come back into my fold. I hear from them all the time,” she says “Everyone’s energy coming to me on my Facebook page during my recovery was really powerful for me. That made me feel strong on days when I didn’t feel very strong.”

Joan seems to find power in the personal, in sharing her own experiences, whether in a one-on-one interview or with 8 million viewers on Facebook. “I’ve had enough happen to me in my life between being a mom, using a surrogate, having twins, leaving a very high-profile public job, taking care of my elderly mom, going through the caregiving, now the cancer,” she says. “If I stay true to what I’m going through as a boomer in this society, then I can speak from my authentic self. It’s much easier to go out and fight someone’s cause when it’s also your cause.” Joan needed little prompting in recalling some defining moments in her journey, from her early days on television as a role model for working women to her public breast-cancer battle and future plans.

BOLD, BALD, BEAUTIFUL
On a warm fall day, Joan breezes into Morello Bistro on the Avenue in a wool poncho; she’s flashing a generous smile and sporting what she calls her “new normal” haircut, blonde and spiky. Her short, light-colored locks speak volumes about where she stands as a breast-cancer survivor and now an advocate. They replace the bright blonde bob that was her trademark during her years at Good Morning America and also the bald head that she bared on the cover of People, sharing with the world her vulnerability.

It was a tough decision at the time, she says now. “That was a scary thing, to do that cover. My kids were going to a new middle school in sixth grade and sixth-graders don’t read People, but their moms do,” she says before ordering lunch. “I was afraid. What if it was laying around someone’s house and a parent said, ‘Oh those poor kids, their mom has cancer.’ I didn’t want someone asking ‘Is your mom dying?’” She admits that vanity was a factor too. In her memoir she describes how she would sometimes wear a bandana to bed because she didn’t want even her husband to see her bald. She also wants to separate herself from any sensationalism. “My motives were totally to be there as a person stepping forward to represent millions of other women who have gone through this and live with the fear of it coming back, with the hope that if they do get that diagnosis, their families and friends will rally around them and not treat them as the super-sick person while they’re bald.”

To treat her triple-negative breast cancer, Joan endured sixteen rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation. She describes some of what she went through on her new Alive with Joan online streaming network, launched last summer. Women who are sick or in recovery can now tune in to Alive with Joan to watch videos about coping with the disease (everything from prepping for radiation to sourcing a good wig) and access news about genetic testing and early cancer detection, survivor diaries, recipes and a hub for women to share stories. Joan taps her network of experts from Sloan Kettering, Dana Farber, City of Hope and other cutting-edge cancer resources to bring the latest information to her viewers.

Because Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer after having a “clean” mammogram—doctors discovered the cancer during an ultrasound that she had requested because of her dense breast tissue—she is particularly vocal in spreading the word about the fact that dense breast tissue also increases your risk of cancer. Last spring she joined the Susan G. Komen Foundation and an organization called Are You Dense? in Washington to push for legislation that affects the standard of practice for diagnosing breast cancer; later in the year she received an award from the foundation for her work as a breast-cancer survivor-advocate. Locally, last spring she served as the emcee of the Greenwich Hospital Ocean gala, which raised $900,000 for the hospital’s oncology services.

While her role as a breast cancer advocate is a relatively new one, Joan says, “I’ve always had my heart centered in health, in women’s health.” During her years at GMA, she says, she was often assigned the “women stories” about health, wellness, parenting and lifestyle and that those were the ones that really got people talking at the office the next day, the stories that people related to their lives day-to-day. Some of Joan’s focus on health also stems from her childhood.

Growing up in Northern California, Joan was the daughter of a cancer-surgeon father and a mother who never exercised. “I don’t think she ever owned a pair of sneakers in her life, and if she did they were covered in gold sequins,” Joan says with a laugh about her mother. But, she says, her Mom encouraged her by being “the guru of positive thinking,” telling her to figure out how to make a difference in the world. “I always thought I would be a doctor,” she says, inspired by her father. In her memoir, Had I Known, Joan writes about how her dad was an avid pilot who often flew around the country for medical conventions, bringing his family along for the trip. When Joan was thirteen, she and her mother and brother were planning to join him on a trip to Southern California for a cancer convention, but her mother decided she didn’t want the kids to miss school. They watched his plane take off at a nearby hangar, not realizing it would be the last time they would see him; on the return flight, he crashed into Malibu Canyon.

It wouldn’t be until many years later, following a long and successful career as a television journalist, author and public speaker, that Joan would carry on her father’s work, helping people with cancer in her own way.

GOOD MORNING AMERICA’S SWEETHEART
The week we meet happens to coincide with the special fortieth anniversary broadcast of Good Morning America, and Joan is scheduled to appear alongside Charlie Gibson, David Hartman, Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts, and current co-anchors Lara Spencer and George Stephanopoulos and others. Presiding over the popular morning show for seventeen years, she reported from twenty-six countries, covered four presidents, five Olympic Games and two royal weddings.

Between bites of spaghetti carbonara, a splurge that she hasn’t eaten in years (“You can’t tell on me,” she says with a grin, “this is like celebrating, throwing caution to the wind. I’ve been on such a strict, strict diet, but even my nutritionist says every now and then you have to allow yourself to eat whatever you want.”), she reminisces about her GMA days. Days that are on her mind as she prepares for the reunion later in the week. Joan joined the show as a consumer reporter in 1976, one year after the program had gone on the air with an innovative format—a set designed to look like a home and reporters who were dubbed a family of contributors. A few years later, when she was asked to join David Hartman as cohost, she was in the family mode in more ways than one. “I literally got the call from my agent as I was in the newsroom getting my story ready and my agent said, ‘You just got the job as cohost of GMA.’ Thirty minutes later I got the call from my gynecologist, ‘You’re pregnant!’ I was like, oh my God. What do I do now?”

By the time she moved into the new job, her daughter Jamie had been born and was only eight weeks old. Joan was still breastfeeding. She requested an office where she would have room for a crib and a baby nurse to assist her. During a press conference on her first day on the job, she says, the PR people asked her to play down anything to do with the baby. “They told me, ‘Don’t talk about the baby.’ In those days they thought you couldn’t continue doing work if you were a mom-to-be or new mom.”

But the reporters asked all about it—how she would juggle such a demanding job and motherhood to a newborn? Would she be able to travel for stories? Soon the same PR guy who told her to stay hush about the baby went upstairs and retrieved baby Jamie and put her in Joan’s arms, an iconic photo opp. “That was a moment on the wild frontier of working women.”

Joan would go on to be a pioneer for working moms, giving birth to three daughters while continuing her work at GMA. “I’d wake up at 3:30 a.m. and have a car at my door. I would go to Washington and cover the inauguration of a new president, then I’d come home and take my daughter to ballet at Allegra dance studio.”

Her fans tuned in every morning, sharing the happy moments in her life as well as more difficult ones, such as her divorce from Michael Krauss in 1992. Like many women, she gained weight with each pregnancy and never really lost those forty pounds, she says, until she got fed up and embarked on a one-year plan with a nutritionist and fitness trainer. “I not only changed myself physically,” she says of her slim-down in the early ’90s, “but it changed me completely mentally and emotionally as well. It made me look at the possibilities of my life in a different way.”

This transformation paved the way for Joan, who is the author of eight books, to write about fitness and healthy eating. She’s also the face behind the Resurgence by Murad skin-care line, designed to target the signs of aging that happen after menopause. She’s currently working on the second in a two-book deal with HarperCollins and that book’s focus will be healthy living. Many of her ups and downs during her time on GMA and beyond mirror other women’s, and that has kept her loyal audience following along.

About ten years ago, Joan faced another challenging role that’s familiar to many women: being a member of the sandwich generation, caring for young kids while also caring for parents. In Joan’s case, her twins were still infants and her mother, Gladyce, who was living in California, began suffering from dementia and needed a new place to live. Joan was flying back and forth to the West Coast, trying to help her get settled. After a couple of choices proved to be the wrong fit, Joan ultimately found the right setting and assistance for her mom through the organization called A Place for Mom. Joan then became the spokesperson for that group, which is the largest senior living referral service in the United States. These days Joan frequently speaks on the topic of caregiving and urges people who are going to visit their elderly parents “to go in with open eyes, not see it the way you want it to be,” she says. She also provides assessment sheets for people to determine their parents’ needs and gauge their own ability to become caregivers.

TRAVEL THAT TRANSFORMS
On the subject of caregiving, Joan is quick to credit the medical pros who helped her during some rough moments of her cancer treatment, including Dr. Barbara Ward, director of The Breast Center at Greenwich Hospital, and Dr. Dickerman Hollister, medical oncologist also with Greenwich Hospital. She keeps in touch with them as well as some of her nurses. “Nurses are the unsung heroes,” she says. “When you’re a person like me who’s Type A, saying, ‘I got it, everything’s fine, I’m strong,’ they’re the ones who say, ‘OK how are you really doing? Tell us what’s really up with you.’ They make you feel a lot braver. They also let you cry and give you a hug.”

Today Joan wants to lend that type of support to other women, especially after receiving many messages from women who are battling cancer and don’t have a big network of friends and family to get them through it all. Over the past ten years, she and her husband, who owns a summer camp in Maine, have been running a program for women called Camp Reveille. Every August when the young campers head home, the camp staff preps for the arrival of a group of women who come in and spend time in nature, hike, swim, canoe and bond with each other in a serene setting. It’s a place where women can recharge. “When you come on a trip like this, there’s a certain recalibrating of your life. It gives you an opportunity to be a little reflective,” says Joan. “You find out how other women are dealing with their life journeys and realize that you’re not alone in yours.”

This year in place of Camp Reveille, which will no longer be operating—ending its ten-year run on a high note—Joan is planning to take women’s wellness events on the road, for adventures such as climbing Machu Picchu and zip-lining in Mexico. “I now know how to get women together, to create a program that engages them, educates them and makes them all comfortable. There is amazing strength and safety and empowerment that comes out of the camaraderie of getting a group of women together.” She’s at a chapter in her life where she wants to take these trips and says it’s more fun to do them with others, especially with the survivor sisterhood.

As much as Joan lives for adventure, she’s also eager to spend time at home in Greenwich with her husband and kids. “This to me has always been my safe haven,” she says gesturing to the restaurant’s window leading out to the Avenue. She loves the natural beauty of the area, especially Tod’s Point, where a photographer recently captured her for the cover of her next book. Her favorite local hangouts include Méli-Mélo, Polpo, Gabriele’s, Terra and Sundown with the kids, and she’s a diehard shoe shopper at Shoes ’N’ More. Her home in backcountry is all about gathering together her large extended family. While describing it as “the house” for every event from birthdays to holidays, she pulls out of her purse some green and gold-tone fabrics swatches from Smith Party Rentals, her holiday tablescapes in the works. “I love creating atmosphere for parties.”

Her busiest season for speaking engagements, from September to mid-November, is coming to a close after taking her to fifteen states in seven weeks. She just returned from a trip to New Mexico, where she shot a cameo for a show premiering this spring called Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president who wants to right his wrongs (including cutbacks for cancer research), and Sela Ward as his wife.

Joan smiles as she recounts a conversation with her youngest son, Jack, who’s ten, about why she had to travel to New Mexico. “Jack asked, ‘So who are you going to play?’ I said me. He said, ‘What do you mean you?’ That’s why they call it a cameo. I’m going to be speaking like I do in real life. And Jack’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going to play you. I sometimes forget that you’re kind of a big deal out there.’” To him, she is simply Mom.

 

 

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