Oh, Joan

There’s little I love more than celebrities telling everyone else how to do breast cancer.

Enter Joan Lunden, everyone’s favorite perky blonde.

And here’s the funny part. When I read this interview with her in Prevention, I agreed with much of what she says. She comes across as honest and vulnerable, speaking the same truth as mine about the difficulty of the post-treatment days.

But, then, this.

I’ve been taken to task on social media for talking about how important it is to have a positive attitude. And it’s usually people who have metastatic breast cancer, and they know they’re going to die, and you know, “Positive attitude isn’t going to cure us.”

But a positive attitude will certainly make the time you’re here on Earth more palatable and will certainly keep the fight in you to keep fighting to live until maybe we even find a better treatment for you. It will keep that fight stronger. There have been studies that show that patients who have a positive attitude and are optimistic have a better immune system, and they heal better, they recover better.

And there’s the OH, JOAN moment. Again, I might agree that being a glass half full gal might add quality to however many years I have left, here’s the thing: you have no business telling other people how to live with cancer.

Because you know what?

When those mets patients tell you a positive attitude won’t cure them, THEY’RE RIGHT.

Metastatic breast cancer (aka Stage IV) is responsible for virtually all breast cancer deaths and current statistics show that it carries a 22% five-year survival rate.

Them’s the facts, Joan.

Yep, they’re scary and depressing and real, so really, who do you think you are to tell people looking down the barrel of that particular gun how they should feel about it?

If you follow the links in the original article about positive attitude and health outcomes, you’ll see that nothing in them is related to overcoming the grim odds of surviving metastatic breast cancer.

In what other disease do we demand that people stay sunny side up in the face of such a poor prognosis? And why? Just so the rest of us can be more comfortable?

As far as I know, I don’t have metastatic breast cancer. Neither do you, Joan. So let’s not pretend we know what’s best for them.

Here’s a crazy idea.

How about we listen to them and what they’re asking for, and help them in ways they actually want to be helped?

While we’re at it, Joan, let’s be careful not to overplay this hand either:

Prevention is the one thing within our power, within our reach. And yet it’s easier to just say, “Well, you know, it’s destiny.” It’s not destiny. We predetermine our longevity by the life choices and the health choices we make today.

Predetermine our longevity? Um, no.

Influence, perhaps, to some degree? Yes. Well, maybe. Although we don’t know much. For sure, there are genetic mutations that can’t be overcome, even with a mountain of kale.

At the end of the interview, Joan, you speak of mindfulness and how you use it in your daily life. When faced with a difficult situation, you say you step back and ask yourself, “Wait a second. Do you really want to go there?”

You should have followed your own advice here, Joan.

41 thoughts on “Oh, Joan”

  1. Do you know what a ‘straw man argument’ is? Seems to me that you’re creating at least one straw man in this post.

    1. Yes, I know what that is but I don’t see how I’m guilty of that here. Lunden claims that a positive attitude can improve a metastatic cancer patient’s outcome and that’s simply not true. She claims that it will make their lives more “palatable” and that is not something she can determine for other people. She goes on to deny the reality of genetics and claims that we can determine our own longevity. A can-do attitude can’t overcome genetic mutations.

      Lunden can speak all she wants to how she wants to live her own life, but the moment she starts generalizing to how others should be doing things, she’s out of bounds.

  2. The most straightforward example:

    “When those mets patients tell you a positive attitude won’t cure them, THEY’RE RIGHT.

    “Metastatic breast cancer (aka Stage IV) is responsible for virtually all breast cancer deaths and current statistics show that it carries a 22% five-year survival rate.”

    You are refuting a claim (positive attitude cures metastatic breast cancer) that JL does not make.

    In several instances you take liberties in interpreting this person’s words that clearly could be read differently.

    1. Taking liberties? I’m following the words on the page. If you want to say, for example, that she certainly knows that positive attitudes can’t actually cure cancer, then you’d be reading something that isn’t there. I’m comfortable that my points are defensible. You interpreting it differently from me doesn’t mean I’m committing a straw man fallacy.

  3. “I’m following the words on the page.” Perhaps you can demonstrate with the words associated with JL’s supposed claim that positive attitude cures metastatic breast cancer.

  4. “There have been studies that show that patients who have a positive attitude and are optimistic have a better immune system, and they heal better, they recover better.”

    This, in response to people on social media telling her that positive attitudes won’t cure metastatic cancer.

  5. Great points, Katie. I don’t see the ‘straw man’ at all here, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Joan’s coping strategies work for her, for now, and they might change, as her circumstances change, or not. That’s the problem with using the celebrity platform to give widespread advice. And the studies that have looked at positive attitude and mortality have not found any benefit found any survival benefits. Sure, if you’re a happy person, be happy. If you’re in denial and that works for you, be in denial. If you’re a realist and like to know your statistics, do that. One size doesn’t fit all. And the realities for metastatic cancer of any origin are grim. That’s a reality. Putting a happy face on it, doesn’t change that.

  6. As is, that is not a direct claim on relationship between attitude and cancer cure, nor is it the entirety of her comment on the subject. If you are ‘following the words on the page’ mustn’t you consider the complete remark in order to be intellectually honest? Not merely the words that appear convenient to your view.

    1. I truly don’t see where you’re coming from here, Matt. These are her words. I suspect we’re not going to see eye to eye on this.

      1. These are also her words–those that precede what you cite above:

        “But a positive attitude will certainly make the time you’re here on Earth more palatable and will certainly keep the fight in you to keep fighting to live until maybe we even find a better treatment for you. It will keep that fight stronger.”

        These statements make no claim that positive attitude cures cancer. In fact they seem to acknowledge that it can’t. Instead, they might be interpreted as propositions for enriching and extending life under condition of disease.

        Point is that intellectually honest assessment needs to account for entire remark. In cases where multiple interpretations are possible, then leaning on one that is convenient to your view without accounting for plausible alternatives (e.g., why is your interpretation the correct one?) weakens your argument and creates environments for straw men.

  7. This is fantastic. Absolutely perfectly argued. There are no straw men here. What you’re doing is pulling down Joan’s absurd and offensive straw arguments.

  8. I’m a metastatic breast cancer patient. I’m currently in remission from an aggressive stage 4 cancer. I believe that Joan’s heart is good and she’s genuinely trying to help her sisters with cancer. I know positivism helped me during my active cancer battle. (I didn’t watch news, watched comedies and spoke positive confessions, but I still cried in the shower, I still had those days where I had to plan my funeral and fill out my advanced directives, those days where I felt that dying was certainly easier than living .) I think unless you are a METS patient, you really don’t understand what we go through and I don’t think people know that it can be offensive to METS patients to hear this. I don’t fault her. I think she’s genuinely trying to help.

    1. Thanks for weighing in. I want to be careful of not doing the same thing – speaking for people who don’t want me to. I see what you’re saying and I agree that she probably thinks she is being helpful. I just wish that people with such an ability to reach a wider audience would listen to others I feel like there is some living in a bubble that goes along with celebrity.

      Best to you,

  9. You guys are “Meal Girls.”
    Clearly Joan Lunden is not trying to tell anyone how to live their lives or how to “do” anything. She is being interviewed people…she is being asked questions and she is doing her best to answer them. She is telling HER own truth and, hey… TRYING to spread a little love along the way. She’s a nice person trying to do good, even opening herself up to this mean-spirited community to try to better understand it and STILL everyone bullies her. It’s horrible.
    She’s not cold hearted, she’s not telling you that you can cure yourself with positivity, you are reading her words and WRITING THEM INTO what you want them to mean so you can bully her online. It’s mean and unnecessary.
    Why can’t you just applaud her for trying her best to be out there fighting for all women instead of picking her apart like nasty vultures. If you follow her work you would know that she is trying to better understand, listen, and help the METS community and yet STILL everyone tears her apart. Why don’t you focus on better things than trying to pull someone down when all they are TRYING to do is be a good person.
    Give me (and Joan Lunden) a break…

    1. I appreciate your comment but am not so crazy about the name calling.

      I think there is room for different interpretations of Ms. Lunden’s words, but I am certainly not reading anything into her words. I think if we had the space to listen to different points of view, we could have a reasonable discussion.

      The think about celebrity is that when you advise people, you leave yourself open to criticism. If she didn’t want that she could avoid interviews. By my reading, she absolutely was telling others how to live. I wish people like her would use their position to advocate for a cure and leave the “positive thinking” out of it.

      I welcome you to stick around and discuss, but ask you to drop the name calling. Thanks.


    2. Amen Dori!!!!!! No were in those quotes from Joan did I read her saying you can cure mets with a positive attitude. And there are things we can do to help prevent breast cancer. No it’s not perfect and won’t save everyone for the disease but there are proven things we do that greatly increase our chances. Obesity, alcohol, exposure to estrogens, and other hormones etc. all have been proven to increase your chances. I really don’t see why you are so bitter about Joan’s interview.

      1. Cindy,

        Thanks for the comment. A few responses:

        I think it’s been pretty well said by many people here that Ms. Lunden has every right to speak to her own experience. She crosses the line when she starts telling others how to live with cancer. You don’t see her doing that; I do. Fine. That does not make me “bitter” and frankly that sort of characterization is completely unhelpful.

        I am much more concerned, however, with your comment about being ways that we can all “help prevent” breast cancer. It’s true that I’m a stickler for words, because they matter. There is, in fact, no way to prevent breast cancer. The things you name – obesity, alcohol, etc – are risk factors, not causes of breast cancer. Far and away, the two greatest risk factors for developing breast cancer are growing older and being female.

        I think this distinction is crucial because when you emphasize the smaller risk factors over the greater ones, people can get the impression that breast cancer is preventable or, even more insidious, that people give themselves breast cancer by making poor choices. The fact remains that many people who do everything “right” still get and die of breast cancer and many who engage in the activities you mentioned do not.

        Words matter here. It’s tempting to try to boil down breast cancer into a few lines on the internet, but that belies the complicated truth of this set of diseases.


  10. I think it’s our society that puts the pressure on to be positive because nobody wants to be around a “Debbie Downer”. They’d rather see the fighters and the walks and all that’s “good” about this awful disease. My husband (who is now my EX husband) didn’t even want me stepping outside of the house unless I was wearing a wig. He felt a scarf was calling too much attention to me (translation: to him). He didn’t want to be seen with someone that had a problem. He only cared about the pink side of cancer. Of course we want to fight, as they say, and we’d love to beat it into remission. I like Joan Lunden and I know she’s just part of “all that’s pink”. Sadly, with her being triple negative, her cancer will no doubt come back at some point. Will be interesting to see if she changes her attitude a bit come that day.

  11. Oy, huh? Could people just leave intangibles like ‘attitude’ out of the discussion of medical issues, for heaven’s sake??

  12. As a “Not a perky person”, I have always had a hard time with Joan Lunden, but geez.
    The woman is less than two years out of triple neg treatment. And she is expressing her reality.

    I think of the celebrity survivors who are attacked because they don’t talk about their experience and recovery, and I think of the celebrity survivors who are attacked because what they say doesn’t agree with what the writer feels.

    There is an excellent chance that anyone who speaks out about breast cancer will disagree with someone else. So, we need to acknowledge that we all feel differently, we know more or less about the studies that have been done, and that our realities are different.

    I don’t believe that she is trying to tell you how to live; she is expressing how she chooses to live. I’ve got to be okay with that.

    I’ve read your blog for years, and respect your opinions. But I disagree

    1. Hi. Thank you so much for speaking up. I really appreciate both you reading this and taking the time to express your disagreement.

      I tried to make it clear in my post that I appreciate a lot of what she said, especially in expression of the difficulty of the post-treatment days that I’ve found hard to voice. In her answer about positive attitude, to me she was ponitficating rather than speaking of her own experience. Now, maybe she was not as eloquent as she’d like to be but for me, in order to say that she was just speaking about her own experience, she would have needed to say the words that made that clear. To me, she comes across as telling mets patience to perk up. I also take issue with her assertion that positive attitude can affect health because in the context which she is speaking (mets) that’s just not true.

      Truly, if this is how she gets through it all, more power to her. My issue with it was laid out well by Gayle Sulik in Pink Ribbon Blues – these sorts of stories are the ones people like to read and they tend to create an image of what a person with breast cancer “should” be. All the other stories are pushed to the margins and if you try to speak up, you run the risk of being called names like the other commentor did to me. Maybe that’s an unfair burden to place on Lunden, but I believe that old “with great power comes great responsibility” line.

      Like I said, I think there is plenty of room for all kinds of points of view – on breast cancer and on my words. I would like there to be a place where people can be heard without fear or without valuing one over the other. I hope that I create a piece of that here.

      Thanks again.

  13. What Joan is doing is misleading and not helpful. If she wants to help, she would use her power to get more funding to metastasis cancer. Start campaigning Susan Komen org. The money is out there, just needs to be going to the right place. How can you be more positive when you think about there is no cure?

    1. I’d love to see someone of her stature talk that way. It’s one thing to talk about your own coping strategies (if you’re clear that they are your own) but it’s another entirely to throw your weight behind research that will make a real difference in the lives of people.

      Thanks for the comment,

  14. From my point of view, there is one key factor missing in the comments of JL. And it is the same thing that is often missing when one survivor/sufferer/victim/ wants to share his or her insights from his/her experiences. That is the simple phrase, “from my point of view.” Each of us has our own truth, our own perspective on reality, pain, survival, loss. We can learn from one another’s point of view but no-one holds a patent on the best or only way to deal with the challenges of life.

  15. I understand your viewpoint. I’m not much of a Joan fan, but I also understand her viewpoint. What I find troubling is the negative back and forth between the early-stage crowd and the metastatic crowd. As an early stage “survivor” myself (and I don’t really like that word either, just using it for lack of a better description), I find it hard to know what to say or do without offending someone. I’m still trying to figure all this out, but I will keep reading and thinking about the issue. Thanks for writing and putting it out there. And I found your “debate” with MWF above pretty refreshing in the fact that you both defended your opinions without resorting to the ugliness and name calling that I see so much today when people disagree.

  16. Thank you, thank you! What many here in this thread don’t know is that Joan had a conversation PRIOR to the interview with Prevention with a well liked Metastatic Breast Cancer patient and advocate. In that conversation, Joan was educated and enlightened about what it means to live with a terminal illness and some facts she was getting wrong. She even blogged about the conversation on her website. Then she comes out with that offensive….yes, offensive statement about the metastatic community and we are supposed to just laugh it off because, well, it’s Joan. Sorry, just because she’s a celeb she doesn’t get a pass.

    I appreciate those that understand why Joan’s words are hurtful and damaging and this post nails it.

  17. What Joan seems not to understand is that there are optimists and pessimists. And everyone dances with the other side once in awhile. Pessimistic people find optimistic moments, and vice versa. If Joan had looked further into her studies, she would have realized that forcing the one attitude on another is harmful. Of course, everyone understand that to force an optimistic person to be pessimistic is cruel. Do that to someone and they’ll string you up. But what people don’t realize is that it’s just as bad to try to force a pessimistic person to be optimistic. It doesn’t work for them. I know, I’ve been there. I was forced into classes where they made us write down “Ten things I love about me!” And I’d lie, because I can’t think of ten things I love about me. Hell, I can’t think of five. Being forced to be optimistic and positive when I really just can’t be, damages me. It drains me, it makes me feel even worse.

    I might not have cancer, but I can imagine that people who do, some feel better if they are optimistic about it. “I’ll just keep doing what I can, and I know I’ll beat this!” And we put those folks up on a platform and we cover them with pink ribbons and go, “You’re our girl!” And if he/she doesn’t “win the fight” we speak at their funeral of their unbeatable spirit. We shine a light on their graves and say, “She was awesome. She fought the good fight.”

    And for positive, eternal optimists, that’s awesome and wonderful But for pessimistic, depressed people that’s asking the impossible. We can’t do it. But nobody seems to think about that. Nobody thinks, “Maybe instead of trying to blow sunshine up their ass, maybe we should just sit and let them cry. Maybe we should ask them what *they* want.”

    I’m glad Lunden keeps her chin up, keeps the positive attitude going and is a little ray of sunshine. Good for her. But don’t for a moment, believe this isn’t in her nature. It is. Were Joan a pessimistic person, she would not be so damned perky. And she shouldn’t expect others to adopt her attitudes, because they work for her.

    1. I make youtube videos and I always say, it’s ok to be mad, sad, hopeless whatever. This is a hard path at stage1 or 4. It all sucks and it’s ok to not be ok sometimes. It’s a lot of pressure for me at stage 4 to put on a smile and pretend that I’m ok. With the cancer spreading so fast. I hurt and I’ve started telling people that. I don’t want people to think that if you get cancer, breast cancer is the cancer to get. No cancer is the cancer to get!

  18. Seems quite simple to me – celebrity or not, we need to each speak for ourselves. Period. I’ve always been an outspoken advocate for both right to self-identify the words we use to describe our own situations AND to embrace our own attitudes as the grow and change over the course of a diagnosis or a day. I happy to LIKE walking with a “positive attitude” but I can’t deny the crummy days, the difficult chemos, the messy side effects, and the days when I’m just not sure it’s going to get better. Woe be to anyone who thinks they are in a better position to define my moods!

    If Ms Lunden would like to speak for herself and her own attitude, I applaud that. If she would like to share the benefits she finds in the attitude she adopts, also great. But when others, perfect strangers, try to put those expectations on me, most especially when they haven’t a clue about the path I walk…that doesn’t really fly for me.

    Well done, Katie – I’m sad and shocked this is still necessary, but I think we all need to continue to call it out when we see it.


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