I was getting coffee at a press briefing about Lung Cancer Profiles when a very familiar voice said, "Hi, I'm Kathy." I knew that actress Kathryn Joosten was scheduled to speak about her experience with lung cancer but was still stunned to see Mrs. McClusky from "Desperate Housewives," with a big smile and outstretched hand next to me.
I confess -- I've watched the show since it started, and always loved watching Kathryn Joosten play the feisty Karen McClusky. I often crack up at the one-liners she delivers. As the actress graciously shook my hand, I thought she was sweeter and less assertive than her "Desperate Housewives" persona and Mrs. Landingham, her character on "The West Wing." But I was wrong. I learned that in real life this two-time Emmy®-award winning actress and lung cancer patient -- she's been diagnosed with it twice -- has more grit than either of her characters.
I asked her why she's become the poster child for a campaign to decrease the stigma of lung cancer by educating people about the importance of knowing the molecular profile of patients who have it. She said this profile can help doctors devise an individualized plan based on the genetic makeup of a person's tumor rather than using a one-size-fits all approach, which may have saved her own life.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. yet it evokes the least sympathy, since it's associated with smoking. People wonder if -- or just assume -- that someone with lung cancer brought it upon themselves. That's what I thought. While studies now show that at least 40% of lung cancer patients have never had a cigarette, the stigma continues and it upsets Kathryn -- a lot! She's hates when people ask if she smoked.
Kathryn said she responds, "Why do you ask?" If that doesn't shut them up about it, she goes on the offensive: "You're just encouraging the stigma. Are you blaming me for it?" In her best Mrs. McClusky tone she added, "You've gotta put them on the spot! Make 'em really squirm! And they won't ask it again." Yet Kathryn is tired of being the only flag carrier for spreading the word about advances for people with lung cancer. She knows famous people who keep quiet about having it, believing that they won't get work if people know.
Meanwhile, Kathryn works all the time and "Desperate Housewives" just worked her lung cancer into the storyline of the show. Mrs. McClusky just got diagnosed. No one knows how it will turn out, but Kathryn hopes it will increase the platform for spreading her message. While the other housewives sometimes fall apart when faced with adversity, Mrs. McClusky is ready to fight.
Kathryn wants people to know that Lung Cancer Profiles provides important information about molecular testing in lung cancer, how to broach the topic with your physician and what to expect when getting tested. Her second diagnosis was much worse than the first, but she fought with her insurance company to get this test. When we met, she certainly didn't look like someone with lung cancer! Her spirit was fiery. When I asked why she's so involved with Lung Cancer Profiles, she shouted, "Oh my God, it's been needed!!"
Kathryn said nobody treated her differently upon learning she had cancer because she didn't let it define her. She met it head-on and everyone felt it in her attitude. When she returned to work she wore a tee-shirt that said, "Hey cancer, you picked the wrong bitch." Everybody laughed and then Kathryn announced her cancer had been removed and she was cancer-free at that point.
She makes the most of getting older too, much like her character, Mrs. McClusky: "I get to pretty much say what I want. I don't have to be as polite as I used to be. I get away with stuff." Her eyes twinkled with delight as she spoke.
When asked what keeps her going, Kathryn laughed and said, "A lot of wine!" adding, "There's no reason not to keep going. Cancer loses some of its terror as you learn more about it. It begins to get its proper place and priorities. I'm walking around and working so it ain't so bad. I'm far more concerned about the cat limping than I am about my next C scan."
Sounds like Mrs. McClusky can learn a few things from Kathryn Joosten. I sure did!