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Actress Speaks out about Lung Cancer Stigma

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To some, Kathryn Joosten is Karen McCluskey of "Desperate Housewives." To others, she's more Mrs. Landingham from "The West Wing."

But to others, the Emmy-winning actress is a lung cancer survivor.

In 2001, Joosten, a former smoker, underwent surgery to have the cancer removed. The surgery was successful, and now in addition to acting, she spends much of her time speaking about lung cancer.

On Sunday, Joosten will participate in the National Lung Cancer Partnership's third annual Free to Breathe Run/Walk, an event dedicated to raising awareness and funds for lung cancer research.

Joosten has been traveling all over, telling her story and educating people about lung cancer. She took a quick break from her work on the set of "Desperate Housewives" to share some of her thoughts about the disease.

Can you tell us a little about your battle with cancer?

I'm a lung cancer survivor; I had small-cell lung cancer eight years ago ... I'm in fine shape (now), working and doing all sorts of good things.

I understand that Hollywood celebrities usually shy away from speaking about lung cancer.

Everybody shies away from speaking about lung cancer. It has an onus right now. If someone says they have lung cancer, people say, "Oh you did it to yourself. You must have smoked." And we're trying to erase that, because many instances of lung cancer today are in nonsmokers - particularly young women who are nonsmokers.

In addition, people in Hollywood don't admit to having a serious illness because they think it's going to impact their careers. I'm the only lung cancer survivor ever to come out of Hollywood, and I'm challenging anyone to prove me wrong.

Why do you think there is such a stigma attached to it?

It's perceived as an illness that is self-caused. That isn't correct. It's interesting that the more people who quit smoking, the higher incidence of lung cancers occur. If it was directly related to smoking, you would see it go down. But that's not happening. Right now, on average, 340 people a day die of lung cancer. Now if you had a plane going down every day with 300 people in it, you'd be yelling.

People are quitting smoking. I mean how many people do you know that smoke still? If it were directly related to smoking, you would see lung cancers in China and the Mideast going way up, and you would see it coming down dramatically in the countries that have banned smoking. And that's not happening.

This is a disease that has an artificial stigma attached. It's unfortunate, but there it is, and it's one of the things that we have to try and counter in our outreach to educate the public about lung cancer.

Do you think it will continue to be overlooked until the stigma disappears? What can be done to remove that stigma?

Well, education ... educating the public, educating the medical profession. Here's one of the differences: For every $13,000 that the NCI (National Cancer Institute) spends on breast cancer research, they spend $1,600 on lung cancer. But lung cancer kills more people than breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer combined. And yet the funding for it is the lowest.

Until we start paying the kind of attention to lung cancer that people have paid to breast cancer or colon cancer, we're not going to have movement forward.

What inspired you to be so vocal about this? Didn't you have the same concerns (about the stigma)?

No, because I recovered and I worked. Very shortly after I had the surgery I recovered. I made it obvious. I'm not going to hide it. I feel very proud of the fact that I'm a lung cancer survivor. I'm out to tell the world that it's possible to survive.

The problem is that we don't have a diagnostic test for it. And the closest thing that we might have is a good chest X-ray or an MRI. The medical community is split on whether or not it's valuable to have a chest X-ray once a year, although they used to do it for tuberculosis without any problems.

I'm an advocate for it. My cancer was discovered, and discovered early enough for me to have a cure. So until we find such kind of a diagnostic tool, I'm encouraging everyone to have a chest X-ray at least once a year.

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(Daily News, Los Angeles, Article by Michael Petersen, July 29, 2009)


The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not being posted with the intention of being medical advice of any kind.

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That's a great interview! If I can do it without anybody noticing, I'll tune in Desperate Housewives so I can see who this Kathryn Joosten (Karen McCluskey) is. I used to watch West Wing, but don't remember which character was "Mrs. Landingham." Can anybody help me out there?


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I LOVE this actress. Ned - she was Martin Sheen's secretary who was then killed in a car accident in the first car she ever bought herself. It led to one of the great scenes on that show, filmed in the National Cathedral, with Martin Sheen railing against God partly in Latin. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FScv89J6rro

Here is a clip from one of my very favorite episodes. She joined Toby at the burial of the homeless guy who was found with Toby's coat on, which he had donated but accidently left a card in so the cops called him. He finds out the homeless guy was a Korean War vet and Toby was so angry that he fell through the cracks. He pulled strings to get him buried in Arlington on Christmas Eve.

Yeah, I kinda liked that show. :)

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