As the long-time host of “Good Morning America,” Joan Lunden spent her career in the spotlight. But when “People” magazine called her in September 2014 and asked her to pose for the cover, she had to think about it.
That’s because they wanted her to pose without her wig, which she was wearing as a result of hair loss from breast cancer treatments. Lunden was nervous because her hair was a big part of her identity. She’d lost the hair on her head as well as her eyebrows and eyelashes, making her feel like her face had been erased.
“I had to somehow just dig deep down and capture G.I. Joan, capture that warrior,” she says. “Capture that ‘I know I’m going to be OK’ spirit and plant that smile on my face. I knew that it meant a lot to be able to do that.”
The magazine shot photos of Lunden with the wig, with a scarf, and bald.
“I saw the pictures and I remember the editor said, ‘Do you understand how iconic this will be if you do this? Do you understand how many women in the future will see this face and say, I can do this too?’”
Months earlier, Lunden had been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive cancer that isn’t fueled by estrogen and progesterone, or by the HER2 protein. She was 64 years old.
The cancer was only detected because Lunden, who knew she had dense breasts, requested an ultrasound. While her 3D mammogram was clean, the ultrasound detected cancer.
“The tumor was way back in my right breast, back against the chest wall,” she says. “I don’t know if I ever would have felt it.”
At first, she thought of keeping her cancer diagnosis a secret. But then she decided to share her story, first on “Good Morning America,” and later on NBC, because she knew it could help others.
While the standard of care was to have surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemo, Lunden’s doctor suggested doing the opposite. She started with chemo and then had a lumpectomy.
These days, Lunden is in remission. She does monthly self-exams and bi-annual checkups, plus an annual mammogram and ultrasound.
She urges women to understand their families’ medical histories. If you get diagnosed with breast cancer, get a second opinion, and rely on friends and family for support. She credits her husband and daughters for being so supportive during her cancer journey.
Lunden finds community on social media. For example, one woman just diagnosed with breast cancer reached out and wrote, “The first thing I thought of was you on the cover of ‘People’ magazine. That’s all I can see in my head, and it said to me, you can do this. She’s showed you that you can do this.”
Moments like that affirm Lunden’s decision to pose without a wig. She’s optimistic about the future of cancer diagnosis and care. “The hope is that all the research that’s being done, it’s kind of all connecting and it’s making findings come at record pace, and that’s good news for women everywhere.”