Health & Wellness

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

TODAY is officially kicking off our #PinkPowerTODAY 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 was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2014. Today, she is cancer-free and has become an advocate for other women facing breast cancer. Here, she shares what she learned after she was diagnosed:

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Pink Power TODAY: Joan Lunden talks to Hoda Kotb about breast cancer

Play Video - 4:22

Pink Power TODAY: Joan Lunden talks to Hoda Kotb about breast cancer

Play Video - 4:22

I had always considered myself a picture of health; I had never dealt with any major illness. And candidly, having no history of breast cancer in my family, I had always walked through life feeling rather immune to the disease.

Then, in June 2014, I heard those words: You have cancer.

I went in for a routine mammogram, as I had done every year, which were always nerve-racking since I was always being called back in for more images. Turns out, I have dense fibrous breast tissue which can mask cancer in a mammogram, so I also had a follow-up ultrasound that day. And thank goodness I did. I walked out of that mammogram with a clean bill of health, only to discover in my ultrasound that I had an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Doctors found two tumors in my right breast a triple negative tumor and a DCIS tumor. From the moment you hear the words "You have breast cancer," everything that was once normal feels as if it is immediately washed away.

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

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Joan Lunden: How I told my kids I have cancer

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Joan Lunden: How I told my kids I have cancer

Play Video - 5:58

1. You have to be your own patient advocate.

I never understood that after you hear those words, it’s common to be 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, or just because it’s good for your friend, does that necessarily mean it’s right for you?

2. Don’t worry about losing your hair.

I’m not going to lie: Losing your hair is really weird. Hair is such an integral part of how you look and feel and when you take it away, it’s weird. It’s like someone drew a picture of you, but just erased the hair! Remember, you’re still you, you might just not look exactly like you for a while.

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Joan Lunden: People magazine cover was ‘tough decision’

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Joan Lunden: People magazine cover was ‘tough decision’

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I posed bald for the People cover it because I know there are women out there who will actually say no to chemo because they’re so worried about losing their hair. That astonishes me because what’s the alternative? Dying. I was totally bald during my treatment but now I have my hair back. And I’m here. Alive today. I am one of the lucky ones I know, to be able to look back and see my battle with cancer as a curve in the road, a chapter of my story that I survived.

3. Going into "warrior mode" will help you cope.

I personally think that it’s important to get yourself into a healthy, positive mind set. Before I lost my hair, I decided to take control and shave my head. That was the moment that I went into "warrior mode." I decided to fight and to BELIEVE that I was going to be OK. For me, that was a powerful tool in my healing.

At first, I didn’t break down emotionally 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, it hit me and I thought, “I need to get everything in my life in order just in case...” I let myself go there for a minute and then I said, “Stop. Don’t go there, you can’t allow yourself to do this,” and I resolved to never go there again. It was 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.

When I started my chemotherapy, I began working with a nutritionist who put me on a no-wheat, no-dairy, no-sugar eating regimen. I must admit — at first I thought: What’s left when you take those away? But actually, there’s a lot left! I ate nutrient-dense foods that didn’t cause inflammation in my body.

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.

I ate lots of cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and cauliflower, as well as dark purple fruits and vegetables, like red cabbage, eggplant, beets, blueberries and blackberries.

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 and I attribute a lot of that to my diet.

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus' revelation of her breast cancer draws outpouring of support

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus' revelation of her breast cancer draws outpouring of support

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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.

6. There are ways to make chemotherapy easier.

There are so many different aspects to the difficulties chemo presents. From the actual infusions, to the side effects, and of course, the dangerous risk of infection. I learned a lot about various ways to help ease the process.

When you’re going through chemotherapy, there are a lot of needles and I’ve always been a big needle weenie! I ended up getting a port put into my upper left chest so that they could give me all my chemotherapy that way. At first I wasn’t sure about it, but I was SO happy that I had it, it made each chemo session way less stressful. The nurses didn’t have to look for my veins each time and stick my arm with a needle. I would absolutely recommend anyone going through chemotherapy, talk to his or her doctor about getting a port.

Another major side effect of chemotherapy is the risk of infection. That is what most often lands patients back in the hospital. My doctor prescribed a white blood cell booster that I got the day after my chemotherapy infusion and it made a world of difference. There is even an option now to have a small sticky device attached to your arm that you can wear home and have the medicine administered the next day without ever going back to the hospital. I wish I had had that when I was going through chemo.

Hydration, hydration, hydration. I can’t stress this one enough. Staying hydrated will make you feel so much better and help flush the chemo through your body.

7. Staying active during treatment can help your body... and mind.

I tried as much as I could to maintain a somewhat normal schedule. I was set to host a baby shower for my pregnant daughter and kept it on my calendar. I decided that cancer wasn’t going to take that away from me.

Try to get up each day and have something to do, even if it’s a goal like taking a walk outside to get fresh air. Staying active, and even working out if you have the energy, will not only keep your body in good working order, but it can do WONDERS for your mind and soul.

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Olivia Newton-John opens up about her breast cancer recurrence

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Olivia Newton-John opens up about her breast cancer recurrence

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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. If you don’t have family around, ask a neighbor, another mom from school, or someone from your church or temple. In those first appointments, it’s like you’re in la-la land, it’s somewhat out-of-body and it’s difficult to retain all the information. I was lucky enough to have family with me and I definitely found strength in my loved ones, they were completely amazing. One of them has been to every single appointment I have gone to.

TAKE NOTES. You will be so happy to have them to look back on. I highly recommend starting a notebook on Day 1 and writing everything down, keep all business cards and handouts there in one place. I would go back to remind myself of things constantly.

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Dense breast tissue makes spotting cancer like finding 'a snowball in a snowstorm'

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Dense breast tissue makes spotting cancer like finding 'a snowball in a snowstorm'

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10. A mammogram is sometimes not enough.

Be vigilant: Early detection gives you the best prognosis. And for some women, a mammogram alone is not enough. Ask your radiologist if you have dense breasts and if the answer is yes, ask them about secondary screening. I had a clean mammogram and then walked across the hall to get an ultrasound since I have dense breast tissue and found aggressive breast cancer that could have killed me. We all need to be our own best health advocates.

Do you have a question about breast cancer? Contact the Susan G. Komen organization, which is the largest breast cancer organization in the world. They’re trained to help you. Call 1-877-GO-KOMEN or 1-877-465-6636. Or email them at helpline@komen.org.

This story was originally published in October 2014. As told to TODAY's A. Pawlowski, follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We'll be covering breast cancer awareness all month long, check out this page for more stories.

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