Cancer Survivor Joan Lunden Says This Is When She Went Into "Warrior Mode"

"I decided to take control," the star says of her bold decision.

A TV host, broadcast journalist, and author, Joan Lunden spent 17 years co-hosting ABC's Good Morning America (GMA) in the '80s and '90s. After leaving the show in 1997, she spent the next several years writing and in 2014, became a special correspondent for NBC's Today. But that very same year, Lunden was blindsided by a shocking diagnosis: she learned she had an aggressive form of cancer in her right breast. Determined to win her battle against cancer, Lunden says she coped by going into "warrior mode," a moment she marked with one bold and decisive action. Read on to hear about her decision "to take control," and what she now wants other women to know.

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Lunden was diagnosed with two cancerous breast tumors.

Joan Lunden
John Lamparski/Getty Images

When Lunden was diagnosed with breast cancer, the news came as a massive shock. Her medical team explained that she had not one but two tumors in her right breast—one a triple negative tumor, and the other a form of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). "I had always considered myself a picture of health; I had never dealt with any major illness. And candidly, having no history of breast cancer in my family, I had always walked through life feeling rather immune to the disease," she told Today in 2017. "From the moment you hear the words 'You have breast cancer,' everything that was once normal feels as if it is immediately washed away," she added.

In this disoriented state, Lunden then had to navigate a series of difficult decisions about her course of treatment. "I never understood that after you hear those words, it's common to be met with differing opinions about how you should go forward," the star told Cancer Connect in 2020. "I went in for a second and third opinion and everybody had a different take. At one point, it's tossed back into your hands and ultimately you have to make the decision about treatment," she said.

After gathering all the information, Lunden opted for "aggressive chemotherapy" to shrink her tumors before following up with surgery and additional radiation. She described making that decision as both "overwhelming" and "really scary"—but ultimately, it saved her life.

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Her cancer was almost overlooked.

Joan Lunden
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Lunden says that her breast cancer almost went undiscovered by her doctors, who saw nothing significant during her annual mammogram the year she was diagnosed. "I went in for a routine mammogram, as I had done every year, which were always nerve-racking since I was always being called back in for more images," she told Today. "Turns out, I have dense fibrous breast tissue which can mask cancer in a mammogram."

The GMA host decided to follow up with an ultrasound, which has a better success rate of cancer detection. "And thank goodness I did. I walked out of that mammogram with a clean bill of health, only to discover in my ultrasound that I had an aggressive form of breast cancer."

This was the moment she went into "warrior mode."

Joan Lunden
D Dipasupil/Getty Images

For Lunden, a sense of determined optimism was crucial to recovery. Allowing herself to only momentarily consider the possibility that she might die from her condition, she says she "resolved to never go there again. It was better for me to stay in the thought process that I will beat this no matter what," she recalled while speaking to Today.

In fact, Lunden says there was a single moment in which she became singularly focused on her survival. "Before I lost my hair, I decided to take control and shave my head. That was the moment that I went into 'warrior mode.' I decided to fight and to believe that I was going to be OK. For me, that was a powerful tool in my healing."

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Now she wants other women to let go of the stigma of losing their hair.

Joan Lunden
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Despite her life itself being on the line, Lunden says losing her hair was among her top concerns following her diagnosis. "Honestly, when I first sat across from the breast surgeon—who had just been delivered the results of my biopsy—and was told I had triple-negative breast cancer and that I would have to have aggressive chemotherapy, my first question was, "You mean I'm going to lose my hair?" she shared with Cancer Connect.

She now views it as an important part of her advocacy to encourage other women to let that stigma go. "I'm not going to lie: Losing your hair is really weird. Hair is such an integral part of how you look and feel," she admitted to Today. "Remember, you're still you, you might just not look exactly like you for a while."

The week of her surgery, Lunden posed bald for the cover of People magazine in hopes of encouraging others to put their health before their hangups. "I know there are women out there who will actually say no to chemo because they're so worried about losing their hair. That astonishes me because what's the alternative? Dying. I was totally bald during my treatment but now I have my hair back. And I'm here. Alive today. I am one of the lucky ones I know, to be able to look back and see my battle with cancer as a curve in the road, a chapter of my story that I survived."

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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