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Desperate Housewives Actress Kathryn Joosten Discusses Her Battle With Lung Cancer

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Desperate Housewives actress and two-time Emmy® award-winner Kathryn Joosten talks with EmpowHER about her battle with lung cancer.

Todd Hartley:
Hi and thank you for joining us at EmpowHER where we improve health and change lives.

So how does lung cancer affect women, woman like, well the nosy neighbor across the street?

To find out let’s visit 4358 Wisteria Lane in the quiet peaceful suburb of Fairview to talk with two-time Emmy® award-winner Kathy Joosten, who plays the snooping Karen McCluskey on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Hi, Kathy.

Kathy Joosten:


Todd Hartley:
You played one of my favorite characters all-time, Ms. MacCluskey, and you have now battled lung cancer twice – in 2001 when you were playing the lovable “West Wing” character Mrs. Landingham, which I adored.

And then you developed a new lung cancer in 2009, what went through your mind the first time, back in 2001 when you were first diagnosed with lung cancer?

Kathy Joosten:
I engaged in tremendous denial. I had been a nurse in one of my former existences and I thought, well, okay we’ll just take that out and everything would be fine, and as a matter of fact that’s exactly what happened.

They removed the upper right lobe and took out the cancer. It was declared stage-1, which was the earliest kind of cancer, and that was that.

And I put it out of my mind and never thought about it again and didn’t really have much of a reaction, which I should have had, but that was the way we were handling it at the time.

The diagnosis for the second cancer, I completely fell apart because I had not expected it. I was convinced at the time that it must be a recurrence or metastases.

It was only after we were tested, after the surgery, rather, to remove the upper lobe on the left side that I discovered it was a brand new cancer which was basically a better situation for me than having a metastatic situation.

So what happened is that, that I had a tremendous reaction for the second one. I was just bowled over and subsequently sought counseling and that has been tremendously helpful. I was cured both times. I am cancer-free at this point.

Todd Hartley:
That must be a wonderful feeling. What do you say to a woman who is recently diagnosed with lung cancer?

Kathy Joosten:
I say that you get yourself into a counseling situation or a support group, some place where you can explore your feelings.

It’s devastating to sit in a doctor’s office and have them say, “Yes, you have a stage-4 lung cancer,” because all you can think of is, I am going to die, I am going to die.

And you can’t get beyond that right away, and then after you start chemo or you have surgery and you get to it with some counseling or you get to a support group, you begin to see that no, this isn’t going to happen that way, right away.

And there are treatments and the treatments are tremendously effective and that it’s very possible that you will have many years to go. You may be living with cancer that is not progressing.

Some cancers are going to be fulminating, full blown ahead cancers and nothing you can do to stop it. I mean that’s what we are learning, there are different kinds of cancers in the lungs.

And the former treatment had been, to treat all lung cancers the same – shoot them with a great big gun and if some regular tissue get killed, well that’s what happens.

However, we are finding out now that the DNA mutation that causes lung cancer, that develops into lung cancer, they are different in different people and there are targeted therapies that are being developed for different kinds of genomes and gene structures in DNA involved in lung cancers.

We just recently had news about the gene study that has identified cells that are precancerous in lungs of smokers, some smokers.

Some get cancer, some don’t. So I would say hold on, go find some therapy, go find some help and learn what you can about it.

Todd Hartley:
You know you are speaking about the benefits of seeking therapy and celebrities have an understandable necessity for privacy. Kathy, was it difficult for you to find a safe place to share your emotions?

Kathy Joosten:
I disagree with that. I think celebrities have a responsibility. I came out public both times and am increasingly public.

Stefanie Powers just recently came out public. I know she was a cancer survivor and lung cancer survivor. I know of several others who have not come public.

One of the problems with celebrities coming public, strictly for movie-makers rather than television, is that the movies require a completion bond and that means a physical.

And if it’s thought that the star that might not be able to finish the project, the premiums are pretty high, and obviously that makes the actor less employable.

But that’s changing. I mean look, Patrick Swayze worked right up until the end and so we need to face that on and say, no that’s not going to be valid, because I worked. I am still working. I have worked through both cancers and I am still working.

So it is possible and I am much older than a lot of the people that are going to be facing lung cancer. So I think it’s responsibility for celebrities to use their position to put a public face on lung cancer and to take some of the onerous mystery out of it and the, oh my god, you’ve got lung cancer, you’re going to die.

We need to say, no. It’s possible to survive lung cancer, not always, but it is possible. And there’s things that we can do to make it even more survivable like getting chest X-rays and talking to your physicians and staying away from hormone replacement therapy.

And certainly if you are a smoker or a former smoker or lived with smokers you have to be aware of that.

If there’s cancer in your family and you have a genetic predisposition you have to deal with that, but putting our head under the blanket and saying that they are going to go away or, oh my god, everybody is just going to die, those are two responses that we can’t continue with.

Todd Hartley:
Kathy, you were a smoker but not everyone who gets lung cancer gets it from smoking. Does our culture have a stigma or a misconception that lung cancer patients did it to themselves?

Kathy Joosten:
Absolutely. If anybody who hears about a person who had lung cancer, did he smoke? Did he smoke? And that’s the first thing out of their mouth. And yeah, certainly there’s a stigma.

Lung cancer today is about where AIDS was in the 80s. The public perception is, you did it to yourself. You’re going to die anyhow so what the hell do you expect us to do about it?

Todd Hartley:
You kind of get what you deserve.

Kathy Joosten:
And the result, that the government agencies charged, and non-government agencies charged with research and treatment for lung cancer, it’s at the absolute bottom of the barrel of every single agency and that just enrages me.

For instance, there is an index that is done dollars-per-death. It’s a way of counting the way monies are distributed among the various cancers for research and treatment and for I think the last year that’s accounted for was 2007.

Lung cancer, well let me start with breast cancer dollars-per-death – about $13,000 some odd were spent per death for research and treatment on breast cancer. Prostate cancer was $10,000 some odd.

Colorectal cancer was $6,000 some odd. And lung cancer was reduced from $1,600 to $1,400.

Todd Hartley:
Oh my gosh!

Kathy Joosten:
Yeah, I mean these figures are unbelievable and yet lung cancer kills more than the other three put together.

You look at this and say this just doesn’t make sense. And when I queried the American Cancer Society and others they said, “Well, that’s very complicated. Well, it’s very complicated.” You know, it’s not complicated. It’s that the right priorities have not been established.

Todd Hartley:
Did they say it’s complicated in a way like, it’s too complicated for you Kathy, leave it to us?

Kathy Joosten:
Something like that. I said, “Okay, if that’s too complicated then tell me how it is that breast cancer gets $13,000 some odd? Why do they have more?” Well, and they admit there is politics involved.

Todd Hartley:

Kathy Joosten:
So those kinds of things just go on and they drive me up the wall.

Todd Hartley:
Oh I am sure it does. Well, when you and I spoke we discussed that there was a number of good organizations that are getting information out about lung cancer.

And a couple of them are the National Lung Cancer Partnership and it’s nationallungcancerpartnership.org, Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and their URL is lungcancerfoundation.org, lungcanceralliance.org and LUNGevity Foundation, which is lungevity.org.

You know, I heard you mention earlier that you had your lung cancers surgically removed twice, what was the recovery like from that surgery? How did your lungs feel and how long did it take to get back to normal?

Kathy Joosten:
The first surgery was supposed to be one of those where they put in a little camera on spot and I forgot what – laparoscopic, yes and they got in there and discovered.

It couldn’t be laparoscopic because it was round around some ribs or something so they had to completely open the chest and that required a couple of weeks of recovery for me and was very uncomfortable.

The second was able to be done laparoscopically. Basically it requires three small incisions and they use cameras and robotics and take out tissue that way. That was, I was out of the hospital in three days and back to work right away.

So I have to say though that both of my lung cancers were discovered by my own personal physician who insisted on chest X-rays because he knew I was a heavy smoker, you know, when I first started with him and he found both of them.

The second one was just routine check up because I had it before. And so, if it hadn’t been for his being a very fine physician, see, if you wait for symptoms it’s too late.

Todd Hartley:
Especially with lung cancer.

Kathy Joosten:
Yes, yes. It’s a very insidious disease because once you get symptoms that means that there’s a pretty good mass in there, and in terms of the breathing and my abilities and stuff like that, I had a shortness of breath after the second one.

It takes a while to regain my comfort level. So when I run upstairs I get out of breath. I had to learn not to run up the stairs.

I was recently horse-back riding and I was surprised that how out of breath I got with that but you know, I just have to see how it goes.

You know, I have been doing everything. I work. I travel. I clean my house. I garden in the yard, you know, I would do all the things everybody else does.

Todd Hartley:
Well I don’t know about that. You probably do acting better than most people I have ever seen. I wasn’t joking when I told you that I love those two characters. They are among my favorite characters of all time and it’s a real pleasure to get to speak with you.

She is two-time Emmy® award-winner Kathy Joosten. She plays Karen McCluskey on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Kathy, thank you so much for helping us improve health and change lives.

Kathy Joosten:
Well thank you for having me.

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