| March 10, 2015 | People
To increase awareness for colon cancer month in March, Katie Couric writes about why finding a cure for the disease, as well as other cancers, has become her life’s work.
Katie Couric, Yahoo global news anchor, says: “I never expected to be the poster child for the fight against colon cancer.”
After decades on TV, I’m used to people approaching me in public places. Sometimes they compliment me on an interview, congratulate me on my recent nuptials, or ask if Matt Lauer is really nice (I always say yes, because he is). But the most welcome comment I get from strangers isn’t, “You look much better in person,” but “I got a colonoscopy because of you and it saved my life!”
I never expected to be the poster child for the fight against colon cancer. But sometimes you find your calling, and sometimes your calling finds you.
Mine began almost 18 years ago. I can recall every minute of that April day: I was trying on a few outfits in my Today show dressing room when our daughters’ nanny called and said my husband, Jay, was doubled over in pain. Suddenly, a lighthearted moment became full of confusion and deep concern.
By that evening, Jay was having a bowel resection. He was completely obstructed by a tumor described as the size of an orange. (Why fruit is the go-to analogy to convey tumor size is beyond me.)
A day later, our doctor took me into one of those small rooms for family members at the end of the hospital corridor and told me that the cancer had spread and was all over Jay’s liver. The prognosis, he said, was bleak. I felt like a zombie, trying desperately to digest the notion that my wonderful husband— and the loving father of our two girls—was in a terrible situation and the life I had anticipated for our family seemed to be evaporating before my eyes.
Couric with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jon Hamm.
Jay was unbelievably brave. He was and remains my hero for the way he fought, with grace and grit, and for the way he lived until the cold January morning, nine months after his diagnosis, when I heard a glass crash on the bathroom floor and ran to find him. I wonder if Jay left his body and saw me cradling his head.
Cancer is unsparing. Over the course of the next three years, we lost Jay’s mom, Carol, to ovarian cancer, and my sister, Emily, to pancreatic cancer. The Monahan/ Couric clan suddenly personified the terrifying statistic that one in two men and one in three women in this country will be diagnosed with cancer.
After Jay’s death, I threw myself into advocacy work. The good news about colon cancer is it can be detected early and literally nipped in the bud (or butt!) before it spreads or a polyp even turns cancerous.
Urging people to get screened became my personal mission, and scores of celebrities and the Entertainment Industry Foundation also embraced the cause. My colonoscopy was televised, and Al Roker gamely let our Today show crew film his procedure. Robin Williams’s memorable colonoscopy-themed comedy routine got people talking. Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep, and many others did PSAs, hammering home the message that screening for colorectal cancer saves lives.
There has been progress, but it’s uneven. A 30 percent decline in colon cancer cases is encouraging, but so many people who should be getting screened aren’t. The well-to-do-and/or well educated largely get tested, while the medically underserved and the uninsured often do not. Through an initiative dubbed “80 x 18,” a coalition is trying to close that gap. The goal is to substantially increase the number of all age-appropriate adults being screened—increasing it to 80 percent—by 2018. That would be huge and save countless lives.
After years of focusing on colons, I expanded my work to include all cancers. Eight other Type-A women and I cofounded Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), with the typically intensely competitive TV networks as full-on collaborators. Our goal? To fund research and move science forward. The broadcast and cable networks have been steadfast allies, donating airtime for a biennial fundraising special across 44 networks and cable platforms. But it’s also caught on at the grassroots level. There’s a Scrabble tournament in North Carolina, a Dancing with the Stars event featuring teachers in New York State, and 24-year-old Garth Watson has run not cross country, but across the country to raise money for SU2C. With support from companies, foundations, and organizations like Major League Baseball, this movement has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research.
Katie Couric and singer Charlie Wilson at a fundraiser for the cause.
Today, there are 14 “Dream Teams” with 750 members at over 100 institutions. They are collaborating and working on myriad cancers. More than 140 clinical trials are taking place, leading to a new FDA-approved therapy for pancreatic cancer, and an especially promising breast cancer treatment is being fast-tracked by the FDA. These are two of the exciting developments coming from our Dream Teams. I can’t wait to see more coming from their labs.
This work has given my life real purpose, and I’m often reminded how important it is. A few months ago, a young woman approached me at a hair salon. Her name was Andrea, and as she spoke, I saw my life flash before my eyes as I looked into hers. Her husband, Jim, had just been diagnosed with a large tumor in his colon. A CAT scan showed suspicious nodules in his lymph nodes and lungs. They had two young children. She was terrified, saying, “There must be a reason I’ve run into you today.”
I was able to refer her to the director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, a facility—named for my late husband—that provides compassionate, comprehensive care. Jim had surgery, and is almost through his chemo. I was thrilled to get an e-mail from Andrea recently, telling me the doctors are confident he will be cancer-free at the end of his treatment.
Helping usher in new therapies by supporting science is critically important. But being there for one person when his or her world is falling apart and knowing, as Robert Frost wrote, “that has made all the difference,” is extraordinarily gratifying. That, to me, is the ultimate way to honor Jay and share the benefits of my hard-earned education in all things cancer.
photography by andrew eccles. oPPosite Page: Photography by abc/kevin mazur (hamm, wilson)