Katie Couric's Personal Crusade

'Today' show anchor helps lead fight against deadly but preventable colorectal cancer

WEDNESDAY, March 12, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Ever since Katie Couric's 42-year-old husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998, the co-host of NBC's popular "Today" show has devoted much of her professional and personal life to raising awareness about the disease.

In an interview with HealthDay senior reporter Amanda Gardner, Couric talks about recovering from her husband's death and her ongoing efforts to educate people about this very preventable disease.

HealthDay: You have succeeded in focusing attention on a disease which, in the past, had not been so visible. Do you feel that you've made a contribution as far as heightening people's awareness of the disease and the need to get screening?

Couric: I would like to think we are making a difference in creating awareness and, hopefully, saving lives. I was so gratified last year by research completed by the University of Michigan, which found that our awareness efforts had increased colonoscopy rates by 20 percent. That's great news because it means that not only are we getting our message out, but we are getting people to take action. And that action may save their lives. The researchers called the increase in colon examinations 'The Couric Effect,' which I'm choosing to take as a compliment...

I have received so many touching letters from people who say they heard us talking about the need to 'Get Tested' and then they did, and that test found something. Those stories are really the most rewarding part of what I have been doing for these past three years. It's real evidence that we are touching real lives. And perhaps, in some cases, by sharing my story, I can help prevent another family from losing their father, their mother, or their brother or sister. That's what really matters.

HealthDay: How did your husband find out he had colon cancer? Were there any symptoms that alerted you to the possibility that something might be wrong? Did he have a family history of the disease?

Couric: My husband found out he had colon cancer when he was basically doubled over with pain in his abdomen. We went to the hospital and learned his colon was almost completely blocked by a tumor. We later learned it was Stage 4 colon cancer. Jay never really had any symptoms of colon cancer, other than being tired all of the time, which we chalked up to a busy lifestyle, having young children, and his coast-to-coast trips providing legal analysis for NBC. Unfortunately, we didn't even have a family history to warn us that Jay should be checked at a young age, as he was one of the more than 80 percent of people who develop the disease without a prior family history.

HealthDay: What were your first thoughts when you heard the diagnosis?

Couric: My first thoughts when I heard the doctor's diagnosis were, I think, the same as most people -- stunned disbelief. I couldn't believe this was real, that this was actually happening. I remember walking down the street shortly afterward and thinking, 'How can the world continue to go on just as it had before?' It was just an incredibly surreal feeling. Once it started to sink in that this was real, I immediately wanted to learn everything I could about colon cancer, about the latest clinical trials, about what new treatments we might be able to try, and why we hadn't picked up on this at an earlier stage.

HealthDay: What are your views on the different screening options for colorectal cancer? Although colonoscopies starting at age 50 are recommended, there are different ways to go. Which advice do you follow and what would you recommend to your family and loved ones?

Couric: I have always said I think the colonoscopy is the 'gold standard' for colon cancer testing. That's because, as of right now, it is the most complete test available, and if something is found, it can be examined and removed at the same time. However, not everyone needs a colonoscopy right now. That's why it's important to talk with your doctor about being tested and work with your doctor to determine what's right for you. It's certainly important to be informed about the different tests, and to ask your doctor if you aren't getting a colonoscopy why you aren't. It's important as a patient to be informed about your own health care, and to look at your health as a partnership with your doctor.

I'm also quite excited about one of the new tests which some of the researchers from the NCCRA (National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance) are developing. It's a noninvasive and highly reliable test based upon DNA found in the stool. Initial reports on the test show it to be more than 97 percent accurate, and if the additional research goes well, the test could be on the market sometime next year. That's not a reason to wait to get screened, certainly, but my hope is that people who are too fearful of a colonoscopy exam will take this new test -- and it's less expensive, so that may also help to increase the number of people being tested.

HealthDay: How are you protecting yourself against colon cancer, for instance screening, diet, exercise, etc.?

Couric: Since I'm now a single mom for our two daughters, I really do have to watch out for my health. I try to eat right, I work out more now than I used to, and as you probably know, nearly everyone has seen my colon -- twice now, in fact, as I had a virtual colonoscopy as part of the "Today" show last year.

I think the best thing to do is talk to your family and friends about getting screened. Insist, really, that they get screened, especially if they have any one of the risk factors for the disease (being over 50, having a family history, having any warning signs, etc.). In much the same way women pressure other women to have a mammogram, we must ensure our loved ones get screened for colon cancer. Eating a healthy diet, taking calcium and folic acid (the latter found in multivitamin supplements) and exercising regularly is believed to be very helpful.

HealthDay: Do you have any advice for other families who are going through what you went through?

Couric: My advice to families who have someone ill from cancer would be to ensure, to the extent that you are comfortable doing so, that your loved one is receiving the best care possible. Any health care is truly a partnership between the patient and the physician, and it is so important for the patient and their family to be involved in the process, to talk about all of the ups and downs to various treatments, and to ensure that all of the treatment options and combinations are explored. I think that all too often we just 'settle' for what the most common treatment is. But often that treatment doesn't work the best for that individual. That's one of the reasons why I've felt the need to help launch the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health [to open in 2004 in New York City]. We hope the Monahan Center will be the first comprehensive and fully integrated program, with the goal of making dealing with these difficult diagnoses much easier for patients and their families.

HealthDay: Has your outreach work been a healing experience for you?

Couric: I like to think my outreach efforts are part of the healing process. Part of dealing with cancer and its aftermath involves sharing your story with others, gaining comfort and strength from them and ultimately helping those who may be traveling down the same challenging and emotionally draining road.

More information

For more about Couric's efforts on behalf of colorectal cancer, visit the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance.

SOURCE: Katie Couric, "Today" show anchor
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