JUST 10 Questions for Kathryn Joosten

I have a personal "thing," for Kathryn Joosten. Like many people, I discovered her when she played the lovingly-bossy, no-bullshit gatekeeper for the fictional President Bartlett on NBC's The West Wing. I wanted her to be my lovingly-bossy gatekeeper, or mother, whichever I could get. Then, when the narcissistic gaggle of chicks on Desperate Housewives didn't love and respect her, as nosey neighbor Mrs. McCluskey, I wanted to jump to her defense. But I really fell in love with her in the short Film, Bake Shop Ghost, which is currently making the festival circuit, and you should go see. However, when she announced that she was battling lung cancer, I had mixed emotions. She was a smoker? ACK! Say it isn't so! Of course, Kathryn Joosten approached her lung cancer as she did everything else, with grit, humor, wisdom and a shrug her shoulder, as if to say, "eh, whatcha gonna do about it?" Well, here's what she's doing about it.

1. Cancer pretty much sucks. Lung cancer, however, has a massive stigma because people assume that you gave it to yourself (which isn't always the case.) How can we move past stigma to both understand the disease AND tell people to stop giving it to themselves?

Lung cancer is at a stage, right now, that is where AIDS was in the 70's. There is massive misunderstanding about the causes of the disease and it's outcome. Society responded to the AIDS epidemic at first with the assumption that "they did it to themselves and if they hadn't been doing bad things, they wouldn't be sick. And......it's fatal anyhow". Then, of course, Ryan White, tainted blood transfusions, hetero aids began to pop up and society took another look.

In spite of the fact that smoking in this country has severely decreased, the incidence of lung cancers continues to go up. I know of an 8 and an 11 yr. old child with lung cancer. One of the reasons for the continued stigma is the absurdly low funding for lung cancer by the NCI. In 2008 NCI spent $247.6M on lung cancer and $572.6M on Breast cancer, $285.4M on Prostate cancer and $273.7M on colorectal cancer, in spite of the fact that lung cancer annually kills more than the other 3 put together. I've spent hours trying to find out why this disparity exists, and no one can explain it to me. The only time the public learns abut lung cancers is when it is related to stop smoking issues. We have got to divorce the two. But try telling people that the very air they breathe is, in part, responsible for lung cancers and see

2. I think we've mostly gotten the message that smoking is stupid and likely to kill you, yet I still see young people lighting up cigarettes all over the place. What's your best "motherly" advice when it comes to smoking?

The best is never to get addicted in the first place. I'm delighted that the FDA will begin to exert some controls on cigarette content, much of which is used to increase the addiction. I don't know where you are but I don't see that many youngsters lighting up. Continued restrictions as to where cigarettes cannot be used is tremendously helpful.

3. You've made a career out of humor, how do you think that humor can help us deal with the really hard things in life?

Well, it's helped me get through the tough times. A sense of humor can be developed, but if it's not there at all, I pity the poor person. There is always something humorous in any situation, one just has to learn to look for it and develop an appreciation for it.

4. We often look to celebrities as role models (which may not always be the best idea!) What do you hope that people learn from your battle with lung cancer?

• That lung cancer is not always fatal.
• That, until we can develop a good diagnostic tool to find lung cancers early, each individual is responsible for their own care.
• Talk to your physician. If your environment is polluted, full of 2nd hand smoke, you need to ask for a chest x ray at least once a year.
• Any home with a below grade cellar, basement, family room should test for the presence of radon.

5. What were the most helpful things that your friends and family did for you to get you through the worst of it? (So we can all do them for our friends if we need to!)

The worst of it was never the cancer. I've had far more troubling things to face in my life. Having been a nurse, I knew the severity of this cancer was not that much. Frankly, I wasn't going to tell any of them about the impending surgery.

When I have a friend diagnosed with any life threatening illness I let them know that I am available for the most mundane chores. I go and clean, shop, take the dog out, that sort of thing. Don't lecture, don't ask for gruesome details, just be a friend and listen QUIETLY!

6. How has your daily life changed as a result of looking cancer in the eye and kicking its ass?

I've become an advocate for lung cancer issues. I've got big keloid scars on my back that are painful and itch and I've got nerve damage. Other than that I am constantly aware of my own vulnerability and the idea that I'm looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope

7. Before dealing with cancer, you had the challenge of dealing with being a single mother. How do you think that helped you deal with other challenges - like cancer - that come up in life?

I've developed several methods of facing problems head on. But first, I ask myself, "What's the worst possible thing that can happen here, and how can I deal with it?" If I face the fear, and figure it out, then my problems and challenges can be faced with a minimum of fear. Fear is the worst enemy!

8. Imagine that there is NO cancer in the world. (AHHH!) What's the next big cause that you would want to dedicate yourself to in order to make the world a better place? Why?

National health for the USA. It is almost evil that we, as a nation, have allowed the relief of pain and suffering to become a profit-driven business. It is an obscenity that a child with an impacted wisdom tooth can't see a dentist, that an elderly man can get a hearing test to see if he's almost deaf but can't buy the hearing aid. It is a further obscenity that some fat cat CEO is getting millions from a company that is trying to figure how to pay less and less for the insurance the consumer bought.

My next biggest targets are banks and the elitist, money grubbing, scamming, predators they have been allowed to become.

9. What are some changes that you've made in your life - however large or small - towards a more sustainable life on this planet?

I'm acutely aware of my electrical and water uses. I recycle. I use my own cloth bags at the supermarket, I attempt to purchase only sustainable meat and dairy products and I try to stay away from processed foods. I am not and never will be a vegan.

10. What are the nuggets of advice that you've given your children about living in a way that makes a positive impact in the community?

They are way ahead of me on this subject and I am learning about all of it from them. One son educated me on sustainable food products and processes. The other lives in the Sierra mountains and doesn't even have a tv.


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This article was written for the August / September issue of JUST CAUSE Magazine. You can get a FREE subscription through Zinio.com.