'Desperate Housewives' Star Fights Lung Cancer, Raises Awareness

Kathryn Joosten is really ticked off.

In fact, she’s so angry at the moment it’s tough to tell Joosten apart from her alter ego Karen McClusky, the nosey neighbor on "Desperate Housewives" who never shies away from a verbal sparring with the other ladies of Wisteria Lane.

What’s got the 69-year-old Emmy Award-winning actress so fired up? Lung cancer.

Joosten was recently diagnosed with the disease for the second time in eight years.

But the former psychiatric nurse, who didn’t embark on an acting career until the ripe old age of 42 (that’s nearly 100 in Hollywood years), seems less concerned with her diagnosis than she is with what she describes as the “stigma” attached to lung cancer.

“It really is today, what AIDS was back in the 80s,” she said during an interview with FoxNews.com. “It’s your fault you got sick. It's, ‘Oh you smoked for 40 years? You did it to yourself. You deserve it.’ Well, nobody deserves to get lung cancer.”

In spite of her current agitated state, no one would accuse Joosten of being bitter. Throughout her interview, her disposition shifts between anger, passion and a sweetness that "old Mrs. McClusky" would never allow her DH neighbors to catch a glimpse of for fear she might be viewed as weak.

Eight years ago, during her first battle with lung cancer, Joosten had the upper lobe on her right lung, as well as several ribs removed.

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In her latest bout, which she describes as a “new cancer” and not the spread of the cancer she faced in 2001, she had the upper lobe on her left lung removed and is undergoing adjuvant therapy, a form of chemotherapy intended to prevent the cancer from returning.

It hasn’t slowed her down any. Right after her interview with FoxNews.com in New York City, she was catching a plane back to California where she due on the set of "Desperate Housewives" the next day.

A former smoker, Joosten is currently raising awareness for EX (www.BecomeAnEX.org), a stop smoking campaign sponsored by the National Alliance for Tobacco Cessation. This month is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Thursday is the Great American Smokeout.

But Joosten also wants people, especially women, to understand that smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer. In fact, 1 in 5 or 20 percent of women who are diagnosed with lung cancer is not a smoker. Hormone replacement therapy, pollution, alcohol and certain work-related chemicals have also been linked to lung cancer, she said.

What really makes Joosten mad, however, is that lung cancer research is extremely under-funded when compared to other types of cancers. She also believes better awareness needs to be raised about just how deadly the disease is.

When diagnosed in its early stages, lung cancer has just a 16 percent survival rate. Compare that to breast cancer, which, with early diagnosis, has an 80-90 percent survival rate or testicular, which, when diagnosed in its early stages, is almost 100 percent curable.

“When Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in the 1970s, the survival rate for prostate cancer was around 50-60 percent,” Joosten said. “Now, the survival rate is 80-90 percent. Lung cancer (in the 1970s) had a survival rate of 13.5 percent and what’s the survival rate today? Sixteen percent. Lung cancer is abysmally neglected by the public at large.

“When you look at what the (National Cancer Institute), the (Department of Defense) and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) spend on dollars per death – because that’s how they define their spending as dollars per death – on breast cancer it’s $23,754 and that’s gone up consistently,” she continued. “On lung cancer, the spending has gone down. They’re now spending $1,440 per death on lung cancer.”

As Joosten continues to fight her own cancer battle, she’s hoping the government, cancer organizations, and doctors will step up their efforts on lung cancer awareness and prevention.

She’s hoping for increased spending and educational efforts, and is hoping that doctors will stress the need for annual X-rays and/or CT scans for both current and former smokers to better ensure lung cancer is caught earlier than later.

“Most people who discover they have lung cancer do so accidentally,” Joosten said. “They either have shoulder pain or arm pain or back pain. What we need to do is combine efforts with other types of cancers. Everyone likes to talk about breast cancer because it deals with the breasts. … Well maybe we can drum up more interest if we call the lungs the things behind the breasts.”