Desperate Housewives is coming to a close and longtime mainstay Karen McCluskey, played by Kathryn Joosten, is fighting cancer. Creator Marc Cherry promised to never kill off the character, but with McCluskey in serious condition and recently seeking assistance with suicide, who knows what will happen on Wisteria Lane? Kathryn Joosten, a two-time cancer survivor, entertained a few questions from Working Author regarding her experience with the illness and how that dovetailed with the show. Joosten was eager to share – and sometimes feisty about it, too.
“I will definitely miss the crew,” she says, regarding the show ending. “We have been together for eight years and many are like family. They have, at times, fixed my car, taken care of my dog and just been great family.” When asked about her character’s storyline and how close to reality it is, Joosten talks about a recent conversation with her therapist. “I joke that it’s like a practice session but it really has been cathartic. I’m very concerned that it be presented accurately and the show has been terrific in that regard. We’re all exploring this kind of scripting together. Let me say that I, unlike Karen, am not dying from my lung cancer. I do have it but it lays quiet and does not impinge on my lifestyle.”
Instead, Joosten uses her experience to enhance the show, advising the writers of how the disease progresses. “I was a registered nurse for 10 years prior to my jump into acting,” she explains, “so I know how this disease moves forward. Our agreement was that the show would be accurate and we’ve talked about that. The show has been phenomenal about how they are doing it.”
It’s uncertain if Karen McCluskey will survive, and Joosten imagines the reaction from her fans will be similar to when her character was killed off on The West Wing if McCluskey suffers a similar fate. However, life and death of a fictional character is the smaller picture here. “The whole goal, for me, is to get people talking about lung cancer and beginning to do it out loud. Most everyone knows someone with lung cancer yet it is still whispered and not spoken of with the same openness as breast cancer.”
According to Joosten, breast cancer is the only cancer that has been portrayed over and over again, and she takes issue with its ubiquity in entertainment. “Frankly, it’s sexier and, of course, with all the Hollywood people having mastectomies and it being covered in all the popular magazines. It’s almost as necessary as a good plastic repair. I’ve been totally pissed about it. Recently, a sort of Hollywood name had a big spread because she had stage one breast cancer removed through a lumpectomy and how she just had to have a breast reconstruction so she would feel good about herself. Where the fuck do I go for replacement of lung lobes? Her cancer is gone…not mine.”
Joosten is furious that no Hollywood names who have lung cancer have come forth about their illness other than herself. “I’ve been going on and on in public about lung cancer for over five years and not one other celebrity has come out. In all that time, I’m the only celeb that has lung cancer? What the hell are they afraid of? I’m still working.” She accepts, however, that having lung cancer is “an emotional punch in the gut” and believes that those afflicted must deal with it in their own way.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop Joosten from raking entertainment over the coals for how it presents the disease. “Breaking Bad had a good start but then Bryan (Cranston) had some kind of remission…bull. The soap, Bold and Beautiful started on the road to discussion, because, as Brad Bell told me, he wanted to write about real things. We talked about how this should be written of realistically, but that stopped rather quickly when he had his main character taking a targeted drug with no mention of side effects, further therapy, etcetera, etcetera.”
Joosten seems even less hopeful when it comes to lung cancer awareness. “Come on,” she says, “how the hell do you turn on a populace to anything? If we had a Ryan White, that would. If we had a Patrick Swayze…but we don’t. All we have is dead people, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and me.” Still, she encourages everyone to stay as informed as possible about lung cancer research and therapies, suggesting www.lungcancerprofiles.com as a good source of information and links to the most informative and involved lung cancer sites. Mainly, Joosten wants people to talk about it openly and without shame, ending the stigma that only smokers develop lung cancer, which essentially blames the victim. “Yeah! Is your diabetes because you are so fat?” Joosten asks sarcastically.
Desperate Housewives returns to ABC on Sunday, April 29.