Kathryn Joosten, is thrilled that she gets to hang out on one of the most notorious streets in America: Wisteria Lane, home to ABC’s hit-series Desperate Housewives. But whether she’s portraying the crotchety and gossipy Karen McClusky, or talking frankly about her health, the Emmy-winning actress shoots straight from the hip. Along the way, she’s hoping to change the way Americans view lung cancer.
A second chance
Prior to joining Housewivesshe portrayed critically-acclaimed Mrs. Landingham, secretary to the President of the United States, on the NBC drama, The West Wing and guest-starred on many hit television shows such as My Name Is Earl, Becker, Ally McBeal, and Scrubs.
Impressive credits for any actor — let alone one who started acting at age 42.
“My first career was a psychiatric nurse in a medium security unit of Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. That’s where I met my ex-husband, a psychiatrist.”
In 1980, her life as a suburban housewife and mother in affluent Lake Forest, Illinois was turned upside down when her husband’s alcoholism led Kathryn to a divorce and life as a single mom to two young sons. “That was a very tough time,” she says.
“I hung wallpaper in many of the homes I was attended lunch in. I would do anything to keep food on the table,” she says.
She was also haunted by a ghost. “My mother died of cancer in 1963 disappointed in me that I didn’t pursue my desire of becoming an actress so I started acting in community theater in pursuit of that dream.”
Her first acting break came in 1992 when landed the role of a street performer at Walt Disney World. A move to Hollywood in 1995 netted her first television speaking role; two lines on ABC’s Family Matters.
In 2001, while working on the West Wing, Kathryn went to her doctor for a routine chest x-ray. “At the time, I was a heavy smoker,” she says. “So they liked to take a peek now and then.” A diagnosis of lung cancer was a surprise because she didn’t have any symptoms like coughing, changes in her voice, weight loss or coughing up blood.
“I had been a nurse, I saw the x-ray and thought ‘they’ll take it out and I’ll be fine’.”
Surgery to remove Kathryn’s upper right lobe was the only treatment required to treat her large-cell carcinoma, the type responsible for 10% to 15% of all lung cancers. “They had to open my chest and spread my ribs,” she says. But after her surgery, the feisty actress says she was declared “clean and cured.”
Life turned upside down
In September 2009, another routine chest x-ray on the now non-smoker sent her reeling.
“They found lung cancer on my upper left lobe,” she says. “Hearing those words again really rattled me. I didn’t see this coming.”
In addition to getting depressed, and worrying about her prognosis, she faced another surgery. “This one wasn’t as invasive since they were able to perform a micro surgery using cameras instead of opening my entire chest,” she says.
Tests done on the tissue her surgeons removed dealt Kathryn another blow. “This cancer wasn’t a recurrence. It was a new, primary cancer,” she says. “This second bout of lung cancer was diagnosed as small-cell, and required chemotherapy. I was terrified of chemo because of the side effects.”
“I’m an actor, I need my hair,” she explains.
To gear up for another fight against lung cancer, Kathryn sought out help from a therapist. “Mental and emotional health is a major part of treating cancer. And sometimes you need help to deal with the recognition that you’ve just been handed a very serious life-changing diagnosis,” she says. “There’s an onslaught of information coming at you in the form of numbers and statistics. It’s a lot to digest.”
Kathryn’s cancer was diagnosed at stage 3A. “I was told there’s a 65% chance this cancer will come back. But, I threw out those numbers, they’re just statistics. And cancer is very personal.”
In December 2009, she completed 4 rounds of adjunctive chemotherapy. “I received 2 drugs designed to prevent any errant cells from reproducing and landing someplace else.” She’ll have PET scans, a type of imaging that lets doctors see metabolic changes in the body, every three months to check for any recurrences.
Shattering the stigma
Because of her first fight with cancer, Kathryn is an advocate for lung cancer research and funding. She even billed herself as the only person in entertainment to have survived lung cancer because entertainers are hesitant to go public with the disease. “There’s an insidious stigma that pervades every part of lung cancer from funding to the way patients see themselves,” she says.
That stigma, Kathryn says, has lung cancer patients isolating themselves, feeling shamed into silence because society thinks they’ve “done this to themselves because they smoked.”
“When someone hears a person has been diagnosed with lung cancer, the immediate follow-up question is ‘Did you smoke’. But we don’t ask people with diabetes if they ate sugar,” she says. “That stigma is why most entertainers don’t go public with their diagnosis of lung cancer.”
The stigma seeped into her on-screen family’s reaction to her illness, too, carving an awkward chasm among the cast. “They were afraid to ask about it. And didn’t know what to say,” she says. “So I would bring it up.” She says talking about lung cancer and her health put her co-stars at ease. “Now everyone asks ‘How’s it going’. They’re all wonderful.”