Two-time lung cancer survivor Kathryn Joosten: Disease carries ‘insidious stigma’
“Desperate Housewives” actress Kathryn Joosten has survived lung cancer not once but twice. She’s one of the fortunate ones. By the end of 2011, according to the American Cancer Society, nearly 157,000 Americans will have died from lung cancer — more deaths than from any other type of cancer.
Lung cancer is not only deadly, it’s costly. The National Cancer Institute estimates more than $10 billion is spent each year to treat the disease, with a big chunk of that coming from health insurance. More than 80 percent of cases of lung cancer are thought to result from smoking.
|Kathryn Joosten, who appears on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” as cantankerous neighbor Karen McClusky, calls herself “the only person in entertainment to have survived lung cancer.”|
Whether she’s portraying the crotchety, gossipy Karen McClusky on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” or talking about her health, the 71-year-old actress shoots straight from the hip. The former smoker and former nurse talks with InsuranceQuotes.com about the “insidious stigma” of lung cancer and shares the “dare” she’s issued to other celebrities who’ve had lung cancer.
InsuranceQuotes.com: When were you first diagnosed with lung cancer?
Joosten: In 2001. I was working on “The West Wing” and went to the doctor for a routine chest X-ray. At the time, I was a heavy smoker, so they liked to take a peek now and then. The diagnosis of lung cancer was a surprise because I didn’t have any symptoms like coughing, changes in my voice, weight loss or coughing up blood. I had been a nurse, I saw the X-ray and thought, “They’ll take it out and I’ll be fine.”
Surgery to remove my upper right lobe (of the lung) was the only treatment required to treat the large-cell carcinoma, the type responsible for 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancers. They had to open my chest and spread my ribs. But after surgery, I was declared “clean and cured.”
InsuranceQuotes.com: So everything was fine for several years. When was your life turned upside down a second time?
Joosten: Years after I had quit smoking, in September 2009, another routine chest X-ray turned up lung cancer on my upper left lobe. Hearing those words again really rattled me; I didn’t see that coming. I had to gear up for another surgery, but at least that one wasn’t as invasive, since they were able to perform a microsurgery using cameras instead of opening my entire chest.
The second cancer wasn’t a recurrence; it was a new, primary cancer and required chemotherapy. I was terrified of chemo because of the side effects.
In December 2009, I completed four rounds of … chemotherapy and received two drugs designed to prevent any errant cells from reproducing and landing someplace else.
InsuranceQuotes.com: How are you feeling today?
Joosten: I’m fine and feeling great. My lung cancer is controlled, and nothing is growing. It’s not interfering with life; I’m as healthy as a horse.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What are some lung cancer stigmas you’d like to shatter or educate people about?
Joosten: After my first fight with cancer, I became an advocate for lung cancer research and funding. I’ve even billed myself as the only person in entertainment to have survived lung cancer, because entertainers are hesitant to go public with the disease. There’s an insidious stigma that pervades every part of lung cancer from funding to the way patients see themselves.
Lung cancer patients isolate themselves, feeling shamed into silence because society thinks they’ve done this to themselves because they smoked. When someone hears a person has been diagnosed with lung cancer, the immediate follow-up question is “Did you smoke?” But we don’t ask people with diabetes if they ate sugar. Many non-smokers are getting lung cancer.
People with lung cancer tend to be secretive and quiet … . There’s no reason to hide in the shadows. It’s essential for public to understand it’s a killer … . I dare other celebrities (who’ve had lung cancer) to step forward.
There’s also an attitude in which somehow lung cancer is seen as an absolutely fatal condition in which you somehow have participated in your own bad luck or health. I want people to know that therapies and treatments for lung cancer are changing rapidly and people like me are surviving lung cancer. For some reason, lung cancer advocacy doesn’t promote survivorship. Surviving isn’t seen as an option, perhaps because for a long time, surviving wasn’t an option. But it is now. I’m active and I’m surviving.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What are some things you’re doing to care for your lungs?
Joosten: I see a therapist on a regular basis, because good mental health is important. I do a lot of self-visualization — I visualize warriors fighting cancer cells. That’s very important, because the mind can affect body tremendously. I certainly believe that doing visualization of self-fighting the cancer, killing cancer cells is extremely important.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What additional advancements would you like to see occur in the fight against lung cancer?
Joosten: In 2010, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) proposed a budget that allocated nearly $282 million for researching lung cancer. The NCI allocated nearly three times that much for breast cancer. The disparity between how much is spent on breast and prostate cancer versus lung cancer is unbelievable.
According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, lung cancer is the most deadly of all cancers, with three out of four patients succumbing to the disease. Breast cancer claims one out of every five patients’ lives. Yet lung cancer receives the least amount of funding; we need equality in funding.