Joan Lunden takes breast cancer battle to Capitol Hill
© Courtesy Photo/Joan Lunden

She’s completed countless live shots as a “Good Morning America” co-host, served as a journalist on hard-hitting stories and penned plenty of books, but there’s one role that, until now, Joan Lunden never played.

“I covered five presidencies. I’ve come here to Washington for many inaugurations and many times to interview our representatives, and I’ve never, ever come forward as an advocate,” Lunden exclaims.

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Now, she has become a regular on Capitol Hill. Since revealing her own battle against triple negative breast cancer on “GMA” last year, Lunden has been lobbying for the Breast Density and Mammography Reporting Act.

“I had a mammogram, and it was clean, and I still had cancer,” Lunden tells ITK over an intimate dinner this week at Mastro’s Steakhouse in downtown Washington with Glamour magazine’s Washington editor Giovanna Gray Lockhart, Capitol File editor-in-chief Elizabeth Thorp and Lunden’s daughter, public relations pro Sarah Krauss.

“I almost felt like there was this ripple across the United States, as women said, ‘Wait a minute. What did you just say? You said we can have a mammogram, walk out, think that we’re fine, and we can still have cancer?’ ”

Lunden, now a “Today” show special correspondent, says the act would require that mammography reports delivered to patients contain information about the patient’s breast density. It was an ultrasound that ultimately discovered Lunden had breast cancer, after she got a clean bill of health the very same day following a 3-D mammogram.

While the TV personality calls mammograms “our best screening device, hands down,” she notes, “For 45 percent of American women that have dense breasts, if we have cancer, it can hide behind that dense breast tissue, which shows up on a mammogram as white, and cancer also shows up as white. So it can literally mask cancer in the breast.”

Lunden, 64, also started a petition on her just-launched online network, “Alive With Joan Lunden,” to gain support for her efforts in the nation’s capital. 

Pressing lawmakers to pass legislation is more than a bit of a role reversal for Lunden, who’s used to covering the news, rather than making it.

“I was very intimidated the first time,” she says of her first dip into the halls of the Capitol to meet with members of Congress. Seeing the legislative process up close has been surprising, Lunden says. “Just the idea that you get slotted into these little times to go in and say your piece, do what you can to convince that senator on how to vote on a bill. Then you’re out the door.”

She has her talking points at the ready for the lawmakers she meets with: “This legislation doesn’t cost anybody a penny. It’s not partisan. It’s just common sense.”

“I’ve interviewed senators for years, but now, I really have seen what their life is like,” she says.

“Just one group after another, waiting at the door to come in, telling them what they hope that senator will do for them to represent them. I feel like I’m here for a lot of women all around the country. I feel like I’m here as their representative. They may not have voted for me, but they asked me to come here, so I kind of feel like I’m here representing them.”

Throughout the past week, Lunden has been doing that representing without her blonde security blanket, of sorts. As the keynote speaker at the Tigerlily Foundation’s Young Women’s Breast Health Day on the Hill last week (in which ITK served as a moderator) Lunden appeared for the very first time in public without her wig.

“It was totally nerve-wracking,” the mother of seven (including a set of 10-year-old and 12-year-old twins) recalls with a grin.

“I shaved my head after I got my first chemo because I did not want to wait for it to all fall out. And that way, I did, and the cancer didn’t do it to me. And I’ve worn a wig ever since.”

She underwent her last of 16 chemo treatments in December. After initial nerves as she entered the briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building, she says she told herself, “Alright, fine. Now everybody gets to see it.”

“I’m exhaling and taking a deep breath on it now — it’s just hair!”

Lunden says, as strange as it may sound, her diagnosis offered her a “gift” — a chance to “inform and empower women to really protect their own health.”

She considers her last few trips to Washington “effective,” saying, “That gives you the impetus to keep coming back and banging on a few more doors and trying to get them to change the laws.”