A TV Host’s Breast Cancer Survival Story

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Title: Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival
Author: Joan Lunden with Laura Morton
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: September 2015
Price: $26.99; hardcover, 336 pages

In 1974, several weeks after Betty Ford became the nation’s First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. Mrs. Ford decided to be publicly open about her diagnosis and treatment to raise awareness and visibility about a disease that had long been taboo to talk about. Her openness about her battle with breast cancer helped begin a movement that evolved into nationwide advocacy.

Today, it is not uncommon for celebrities to share their health-related stories publicly. Adding to the fairly long list of stories by celebrity breast cancer survivors is a book by former co-host of Good Morning America Joan Lunden called Had I Known: A Memoir of Survival, written with Laura Morton, a skilled author who has helped other celebrities hammer out their stories.

People generally read books for two reasons: to learn or to have an enjoyable reading experience. It’s always a thrill to pick up a book that offers both experiences. Ms. Lunden cultivated an every-woman’s identity during her 20 years on Good Morning America. Her book takes a page from her television style, becoming an intimate conversation with the readers. 

A Finicky Literary Genre

Memoir is a finicky literary genre. The fact is that most people’s lives are just not interesting enough to fill a 300-page book with compelling narrative.

Besides being a TV personality, Ms. Lunden’s life story is fairly staid. She has several children from two marriages and a loving husband who owns two summer camps in Maine. The drama in her life was being diagnosed with breast cancer, and her story of survival, although motivating, is similar to most educated, well-to-do women in America.

What makes hers more interesting is that she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and has very dense breasts, an important point for women’s breast health. “I have always been very diligent about getting my breast screenings…. For years, I didn’t realize my breasts were so dense with fibrous tissue that without ultrasound, it was virtually impossible for technicians to detect a tumor,” she writes.

In 2009, Ms. Lunden had a fortuitous meeting with Susan Love, MD, who stressed that women with dense breasts need ultrasound as well as mammography. “It probably saved my life.” 

The opening chapters dealing with triple-negative cancer and the need for ultrasound for women with dense breasts provide good information, written in a breezy, easy-to-read style. After that, however, much of the book is an admixture of coping skills and positive reinforcement messages, which is fine if that’s what a reader is looking for.

Value Amid the Meanderings

Had I Known spools out in 30 short chapters. The strongest part of the book is when Ms. Lunden becomes her own health-care advocate and drastically revamps her lifestyle, seeking a new, healthier formula for her life as a cancer survivor. There’s a lot of good information here.


Had I Known has value amid the meanderings and pages of spirited inspiration. And Ms. Lunden certainly comes off as a likeable person who has fought the good fight against a difficult cancer. She now speaks all over the country about health and wellness and success. And her story is inspirational. But her story of an educated, well-heeled woman filled with support from the nation’s top specialists and an outpouring of public love also illustrates the disparities of care challenges that too many women with breast cancer face. Had I Known has an audience, but it is not recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■