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Joan Lunden: 10 things I wish I knew before I was diagnosed with breast cancer

TODAY is officially kicking off our "#PinkPower" series for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month where we're celebrating survivors, supporting those currently battling cancer and remembering loved ones we've lost. Special correspondent Joan Lunden shares what she's learned since being diagnosed with an aggressive type of breast cancer in June:I’ve never dealt with a terrible illness of any ki

TODAY is officially kicking off our "#PinkPower" series for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month where we're celebrating survivors, supporting those currently battling cancer and remembering loved ones we've lost. 

Special correspondent Joan Lunden shares what she's learned since being diagnosed with an aggressive type of breast cancer in June:

I’ve never dealt with a terrible illness of any kind — I’ve really been a picture of health. As for breast cancer, I felt like I was exempt because I didn’t have a bunch of relatives with the disease. 

Then, I got the news in June.

I went in for a routine mammogram, as I do every year, and for a follow-up ultrasound, which doctors have recommended for me because I have dense fibrous breast tissue. As far as the mammogram was concerned, I was a picture of health, but when I got the ultrasound, I just knew something was wrong because they kept going back to the same place on my chest.

Doctors found two tumors in my right breast, both triple negative breast cancer, which means it’s more aggressive and faster growing. From the moment you hear the words ‘You have breast cancer,’ it’s almost like you’re shot out of a cannon. You are just propelled at this meteoric speed straight to a cancer surgeon. 

Here are 10 things I wish I knew before I was diagnosed:

1. You have to be your own patient advocate

I never understood that after you hear those words, you’re met with differing opinions about how you should go forward. 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.

Every single breast cancer is different -- that’s got to be front and center in your brain. You have to decide: just because it’s protocol, does that necessarily mean it’s right for you?

I had to decide: Was I going to do surgery first and then chemotherapy? Was I going to do chemotherapy in a way that it’s normally prescribed? I chose to do chemotherapy first, to shrink the tumors, followed by surgery.

2. Don’t worry about losing your hair

I’m not going to lie: Losing your hair is really weird. Hair is so part and parcel to your looks that when you take it away, it’s like someone drew a picture of you and they erased the hair. It’s still you -- it just doesn’t look like you.

I posed bald for the People cover it because I know there are women out there who literally will say no to chemo because they’re so worried about losing their hair. That astonishes me because what’s the alternative? I’m totally 100 percent bald right now. But at some point, my hair is going to grow back and I’ll bet you that a year from now, I’ll look back on this as like a little curve in the road. It won’t define me and I’ll go on and I’ll be here for my children and my husband.

Read more: Cancer patients share bald photos in support of Joan Lunden People cover

3. Going into ‘warrior mode’ will help you cope

You need to stay in a healthy, positive mind set. I’m in warrior mode right now, which means taking care of yourself and believing you’re going to be OK in the end. And that’s important.

I didn’t break down crying when I was told I had breast cancer. For a long time, I didn’t even go through the thought process that I might die. But after reading about a woman who had died from triple negative breast cancer, I thought, I need to get everything in my life in order. Then, all of a sudden, I said stop. Don’t go there, you can’t allow yourself to do this, and I never did it again. It’s better for me to stay in the thought process that I will beat this no matter what.

4. Diet plays such a huge role in preventing and fighting cancer

Many things that we eat and drink are causing us to get cancer. All the garbage food that I ate along with every other American —processed, refined foods — I now look at it with eyes wide open. I see now how I unwittingly contributed to my own breast cancer.

Since my diagnosis, I have switched over to eating nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods that don’t cause any inflammation in my body. My nutritionist put me on a no-wheat, no-dairy, no-sugar eating regimen. I thought: What’s left when you take those away? But actually, there’s a lot left.

I eat lots of cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and cauliflower. I also look for dark purple fruits and vegetables, like red cabbage, eggplant, beets, blueberries and blackberries. 

When I was given an eating regimen that I was told could save my life, it became an empowering, life- saving eating program, not a diet of deprivation.

5. It’s important to become a voracious label reader

Sugar is added to almost everything we buy and eat. I stood in the aisle at Whole Foods one time and looked at 20 jars of spaghetti sauce and only two of them did not contain sugar. Start reading labels: I always considered myself a label reader, but I wasn’t. But boy, I am now.

Step away from that soda: Sugary drinks raise cancer risk for women, study finds

6. There are ways to make chemotherapy easier

When you’re going through chemotherapy, there are a lot of needles and I’ve always been a needle weenie, but you just have to learn to get over it. I went and got a port put into my upper left chest so that they could give me all my chemotherapy that way. It meant that they weren’t always going through the veins in my arm. Anyone going through chemotherapy should absolutely talk to their doctor about getting a port.

7. It’s especially important to eat right during chemo

Chemo doesn’t know the good cells from the bad cells, so it kills off a lot of your good cells, including those on the inner lining of your digestive tract. It’s almost like demons take over your belly. There’s just nothing normal about your digestive tract, but the cleaner you can eat – cutting out refined, processed, foods – that’s what allowed me to live normally. I didn’t deal with a lot of the usual chemo side effects.

8. Give yourself some TLC

Sometimes, chemo felt like they were dropping a napalm bomb on me. You have to learn to give into it. One day, my oncologist looked at me and said, “You walk in here and I ask you how you’ve been doing and you tell me, ‘I’m doing great, I played tennis, I did this, I worked out’ and then I look at your numbers and your white blood cell count is down. Those two things don’t match.”

She said, “I don’t think you even have the ability to perceive when you’re really tired. So for the next week, you have to rest.” And I followed her instructions. I’m such a Type A, go-go-go kind of person that whenever I’m tired, I really don’t stop to think about it, I just push through. I had to learn to stop pushing through. That was really hard for me to do, but I had to do it.

9. A support system is key

Always take someone with you to every appointment because it’s really hard to take it all in. You’re almost kind of in La-La land – it’s hard to explain it. You need someone there with you. I have found my strength in my family and my friends and they have just been completely amazing. One of them has been to every single appointment I have gone to.

I highly recommend starting a notebook and writing down everything – not you, the person who goes with you – to keep track of all that your doctor says. I’ve got all the notes. I’ll go back and think, what did they say to me at that point?

10. A mammogram is sometimes not enough

Be vigilant: Early detection gives you the best prognosis. You have to get checked. When you go in to get your mammogram, ask them: Are my breasts fatty tissue? Or are they dense fibrous tissue? You need to know that. If they say they’re dense and fibrous, you need to fight to get that ultrasound.

Famous breast cancer survivors

Slideshow  25 photos

Famous breast cancer survivors

Movie stars, singers and a politician’s wife who’ve all been diagnosed with the disease reveal their strength to keep fighting.

As told to TODAY's A. Pawlowski

We’re all about #Pink Power this week…Send us your pics on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with Pink Power. And check out our complete coverage during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.