This article originally appeared on Next Avenue
When she stepped out onto the stage at a recent AARP convention, Joan Lunden looked as sunny and radiant as she always has as a 17-year co-host on “Good Morning America” in the ‘80s and ‘90s and more recently as the healthy living guru and businesswoman who inspires everyone she touches.
She came to talk to the gathered baby boomer and beyond crowd about caregiving – a role she had played with her mother whom she lost in 2013. But with bright eyes and a perfectly coifed hairstyle, Lunden said she wanted first to address “the elephant in the room.” A month earlier, Lunden, age 64, had gone public with the news that she was one of the 232,670 new cases of breast cancer among women in the U.S. She announced she had just finished 12 weeks of chemotherapy and would enter another round of the cancer-killing therapy in a couple of weeks. As she smiled at the supportive crowd, she seemed strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Lunden’s life had been a series of triumphs and challenges. As a young girl, she lost her father, who was a cancer surgeon, in a plane crash. As she began her career as a TV broadcast journalist, it was during this period she had become caregiver to her brother, who had health complications from type 2 diabetes, and her aging mother who was eventually diagnosed with dementia. She says what she realizes now that she did not at the time, is that caring for her brother and mother simultaneously over 30 years ago is when her caregiving journey began. After GMA, she became a health advocate, writing books, making speeches and continuing to bring her California-girl sunshine to the masses, all the while crisscrossing the country from her East Coast home to the brother and mother who needed her care on the West Coast. After divorcing her first husband, she found love again with current husband, Jeff Konigsberg, only to face infertility issues and opt for surrogacy to have her last four children (two sets of twins who joined Joan’s three older daughters from her first marriage).
I met Joan in 2010 when she interviewed me as a caregiving expert on a special RLTV program called “Taking Care with Joan Lunden.” Since then, I have interviewed her a few times over the years and am always amazed at her boundless energy, her “you can do it” attitude and her genuine interest in people and their lives. Although her life reads like a Lifetime movie, the up and down Lunden roller-coaster has never impacted her exuberance. Joan credits her parents for her optimism. She said, “My mom was the ultimate positive thinker and my dad was a doer.”
It is this positive outlook that brings Joan a lifeforce which I know will help her conquer breast cancer and is the same prescription that made her a model caregiver. What she learned as a caregiver is now empowering her as a cancer warrior.
For instance, Joan told me she had guilt over not moving her mother closer to her while her mom lived her last years with dementia. Eventually, Joan realized that removing her mother from her comfort zone of the California sunshine and dear friends to colder climes on the East Coast, would not have solved the problem. Joan was traveling constantly during those last years and would not have had much more time to care for her mother even if she had lived down the street. The staff at the California dementia care home where she eventually moved her mom reminded Joan that the periods between visits were inconsequential to someone with dementia who has lost ability to understand space and time.
Joan also expressed guilt over being diagnosed with breast cancer. Advocating for healthy eating much of her adult life, she says she felt that somehow she must have done something wrong along the way. Joan realizes now she was paying lip service to reading food labels – ignoring the real information. She said, “The American diet is the best fertilizer for growing cancer.” Today Joan eats clean and has eliminated wheat, dairy and sugar from her diet and advocates for avoiding GMO foods (genetically modified organisms).
Having the strength and energy to battle cancer is the same diet plan caregivers need to have the stamina to keep caring for a loved one. And letting go of guilt is the ingredient for a strong emotional core during caregiving challenges.
Joan also looks for the silver linings in life – a lesson all caregivers need to push through some difficult and overwhelming feelings. When it came to dementia and caring for her mom, Joan realized she had to let go of trying to bring her mother back into Joan’s world. Instead Joan had to step into her mom’s world. When she showed her mom photos of her grown daughters, her mother would express confusion or lack of interest in not knowing these people. But when Joan swapped those photos with some of her and her brother as children and included some of her parents as young newlyweds, her mother’s face would light up. Along the way, Joan learned new things about her parent’s early life that she felt she would have missed if her mother did not have the cognitive impairment that made them both refresh memories from long ago.
When it comes to cancer, Joan said her silver lining is in recognizing the irony of losing her adored father who just happened to be a cancer surgeon. His plane crashed returning from a conference where he was training other cancer doctors. When Joan was first diagnosed, she pondered whether or not to go public with the news. As she told the AARP crowd, “I thought it was ridiculous I could stay private with this news – it would break somehow. But my second thought was I had always wanted to follow in my dad footsteps and become a surgeon but scalpels and blades where not my thing. However, my dad gave his life training others about cancer – now I can follow his footsteps and do the same thing.”
As I look at the beautiful, bold, bald cover photo of Joan on this week’s People magazine, it is clear she is our teacher, our healer, our cheerleader and our role model in caregiving and in caring for ourselves.
Sherri has interviewed Joan several times over the years and included Joan’s caregiving story in her book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.