Everywhere Joan Lunden goes – and she travels many, many weeks of the year – people take her aside, and not just because they recognize her from TV.
They tell her their stories.
The man on the plane who talked about his mother with Alzheimer’s disease. The woman at a book signing who shares a fight to get insurance to cover her medical bills from fighting breast cancer.
"I can’t get on an elevator without someone telling me their story," she said with a smile during an interview Wednesday before a luncheon talk at Aging & In-Home Services of Northeast Indiana’s 40th annual meeting at Parkview Health’s Mirro Center for Research and Innovation in Fort Wayne.
But, Lunden says, she’s happy that her career, which has morphed from TV’s longest-running "Good Morning, America" host to health advocate has resonated with so many people.
Lunden has seen both sides of the bedside. For years, she cared for her brother, who was unable to work due to severe complications of Type 2 diabetes, and for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s.
"I had to put together a new life for my mother while I was planning a funeral for my brother," said Lunden, who is mother of seven, including two sets of twins. When roles reverse and children need to care for their parents, "I’ve seen successful adult children who are suddenly brought to their knees."
But nothing prepared her for the transition she faced during the past year – after she heard her doctor say, "You have breast cancer."
Lunden became the patient instead of the support system. And the journalist who had done dozens of stories on breast cancer shielded herself behind professional distance.
"Boy, did I get my eyes opened this year," she said. "I had the tables turned on me."
Lunden’s cancer was classified "triple negative," meaning that the tumor lacked three receptors that are used as targets for therapies. Triple negative cancers therefore are harder to treat and tend to be aggressive.
Experts say they tend to grow more quickly, recur and spread to other parts of the body.
They also tend not to show up on mammograms, as Lunden emphasizes in her latest book, "Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival."
Lunden says she had the support of her family, especially her husband since 2000, Jeff Konigsberg, during her treatment. Her husband took everyone aside and told them that the family was dealing with the disease together, and she wasn’t on her own.
Even when People magazine asked whether she would appear on the cover bald, the twins were "fine with it," she said. "Daddy already talked to us," they told her.
The cover "really engaged the public," Lunden said. She understands that many women go through the disease alone, without anyone to go with them to doctors’ appointments and to chemo and radiation treatments.
"It did open my eyes to how remarkably tough the journey is."
But now, with her hair grown back as salt-and-pepper blond and worn in a becoming short, spiky style, Lunden is ready for whatever comes.
Asked what one thing she’d like to see changed in America’s health care system, she hesitates not a bit.
"My answer might surprise you," she said. "I’d like America’s food supply to change."
Too many preservatives, chemicals, genetically modified foods and processed foods make their way into our diets through our fast-paced lives, she said.
"But we’re killing ourselves," she said. "I think there’s a reason why there is so much more cancer being detected today."