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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Special Section:
Colorectal Cancer

A Conversation with Katie Couric

Katie Couric and her daughters

Katie Couric sought counsel from nonprofit CancerCare on how to help daughters Ellie (left) and Carrie deal with the loss of Katie's husband and their father, Jay Monahan.
Photo: Katie Couric

What are the most important messages you have for Americans about how they can protect themselves and their loved ones from colorectal cancer?

Katie Couric: Colorectal cancer claims the lives of almost 50,000 Americans each year; it's still our second-leading cancer killer, and that just shouldn't be! With appropriate screening and early detection, this is one cancer that is not only highly curable but also highly preventable. If pre-cancerous growths in the colon—polyps—are found during screening, they can be removed before they become malignant.

Everyone should begin testing when they turn 50, and those with risk factors—such as a family history of the disease—may need to start earlier. You need to know your family medical history, but also be aware that most people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, about 75 percent, have no family history of it. And in its early stage, colorectal cancer usually causes no symptoms at all.

Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking—or never starting—can lower one's cancer risk.

What advice do you have for people who have recently been diagnosed with cancer?

Katie Couric: In my mind, the most important thing is to never lose hope—never let anyone take it away from you.

You and your loved ones really need to be there for one another. If you have young children, keep a close eye on how the experience is affecting them. During Jay's illness, I asked CancerCare, a wonderful non-profit organization, how I could help my then-six-year-old daughter Ellie at school, and they suggested an exercise for her class called the worry cup. Each child puts a penny in a cup and talks about what they're worried about. It seems a lot of the girls in first grade were worried about something. As a result, I think Ellie felt less alone. Her teacher later told me it was one of the most moving experiences of her career.

Katie Couric and the staff of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health

Katie Couric and the staff of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health, named for her late husband, who died from colon cancer.
Photo: The Jay Monahan Center

Patients and caregivers should utilize the skills and resources of their whole healthcare team, including nurses and social workers who can help provide and identify sources of support. Also, be sure to involve your extended family and friends—ask them for help, specifically telling them what they can do. So often, family and friends want to help, but are completely at a loss about how to do that.

You are the co-founder of the Entertainment Industry Foundation's National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. What is the NCCRA?

Katie Couric: Once I picked myself up after Jay died, I wanted to help spare other families the terrible heartbreak mine had endured. My friend Lilly Tartikoff introduced me to the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the collective philanthropy for the television and film businesses, and together we launched the NCCRA in March 2000 to raise money for cutting-edge research and promote awareness about the importance of screening.

To date, we've raised more than $30 million. That money provides critical funding to nine scientists at leading institutions around the country, who have made some significant breakthroughs in record time. In my book, they and all the other cancer researchers who work 24/7 to try to end this insidious disease are our society's unsung heroes. A portion of the funds served as seed capital for The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health, a GI cancer and wellness center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center that provides seamless, compassionate care for individuals who have—or are at risk for developing—gastrointestinal cancers.

"The most important thing is to never lose hope—never let anyone take it away from you."

We also conduct public awareness campaigns, including a very effective one done with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, and Jimmy Smits and I have all done PSAs encouraging people to get screened. And our newest ambassador is actor Terrence Howard, who lost his 56-year-old mom to colon cancer last fall.

When you had your colonoscopy taped and shown on morning television, you really helped to educate Americans about the procedure, its importance, and to reduce its stigma. Did you expect such a big reaction?

Katie Couric: Since nothing like that had ever been done before, we didn't know what to expect. That the number of people having this test rose by 20 percent after The Today Show broadcast of my colonoscopy and our other awareness efforts was a welcome surprise.

I've received thousands of letters from people saying I helped motivate them to get screened. It is profoundly gratifying and humbling to have one person tell you that you helped save his or her life, and we have received many, many letters saying just that.

We've seen reductions in colorectal cancer rates recently. Do you credit increased public awareness and screening?

Katie Couric: Certainly the awareness efforts of the whole colorectal cancer advocacy community have had an impact. Screening rates are up, and the colorectal cancer death rate fell by almost 10 percent from 2003 through 2005. Another key factor in the declining death rate is that new treatments have been introduced in the last few years.

While there has been good progress, something like 40 percent of the U.S. population has still not been appropriately tested. We have to keep up a relentless drumbeat of messages urging people to "talk to your doctor and get screened."

(center) CBS's Katie Couric, (left) ABC's Charlie Gibson and (right) NBC's Brian Williams

Katie Couric, CBS News anchor, was joined by fellow anchors, ABC's Charlie Gibson (left) and NBC's Brian Williams, when the three networks collaborated last year on a fund-raising campaign, Stand Up To Cancer, to support all areas of cancer research.
Photo: Stand Up to Cancer

You also played a key role in establishing Stand Up To Cancer. Can you tell us a little about that?

Katie Couric: With advances in technology and other areas, researchers are closer than ever to the kinds of discoveries that can end cancer. But they need more money and easier ways to collaborate on specific research projects with colleagues at other institutions—to work as part of "Dream Teams"—so new treatments get to patients as quickly as possible. That's what Stand Up To Cancer is all about.

We launched last year, with the three networks collaborating on a simultaneously broadcast fundraising special. We want to make every American aware that they can make a difference in this fight by helping these scientists. Whatever one individual can do in these tough economic times, every contribution—of any size—helps.

The first "Dream Teams" funded by Stand Up To Cancer will begin their work this year.

The goal of this magazine, NIH MedlinePlus, is to give people access to trusted, easily understood information about dealing with disease, staying healthy, and the latest research. Do you often hear from people seeking such reliable information?

Katie Couric: I do, and I empathize with how bewildering a cancer diagnosis can be. You are already emotionally shell-shocked hearing this terrible news, and you're thrust into a situation where people are speaking a language you
don't understand. We have to make scientifically based information readily accessible for the general public, and it has to be communicated in a way the average person can understand. So, bravo for NIH MedlinePlus for addressing this need!

"We want to make every American aware that they can make a difference in this fight by helping these scientists."

What does the future hold for Katie Couric?

Katie Couric: We'll have to wait and see! I'm focused on three things above all else: my job as anchor of the CBS Evening News; my cancer work; and, most importantly, my family: being the best mother I can to my two wonderful daughters, and the best daughter I can to my wonderful parents.


Spring 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 2 Pages 4 - 6