stanford medicine


main image

conversation with Katie Couric

Standing up for cancer research

Television morning news audiences had never experienced anything quite like it: watching their beloved host undergo a colonoscopy while they sipped their coffee.

Eight years ago, in a singular television moment, the Today show’s Katie Couric brought the uncomfortable topics of colorectal cancer and screening to millions. Couric came into cancer prevention advocacy the hard way, with the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, at 41 in 1998 from colon cancer. Two years after his death, determined to prevent other deaths from this cancer, she joined with the Entertainment Industry Foundation to found the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. Now, at the helm of CBS Evening News, she is joining her fellow broadcast news anchors, NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles Gibson, to co-host a one-hour, prime-time, commercial-free television special to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Stand Up to Cancer will air simultaneously on all three networks Sept. 5. Just after announcing the special, Couric answered Stanford Medicine’s questions about the show, fighting cancer and talking with children about a death in the family, a subject she found herself revisiting on a recent summer holiday.

What do you hope to accomplish in 60 minutes?

Couric: For people struggling with this disease, scientific breakthroughs can be a matter of life or death — literally. We hope to educate, inspire and entertain, so all of our viewers understand that they have a stake in this fight. Knowing that they can make a difference, we hope everyone will choose to get involved, and donate to whatever degree they can. Only one in 10 meritorious research proposals submitted to the National Cancer Institute receives funding, so clearly there is a significant need for the private sector to step up its support of cancer research.

What are three simple things people can do to lower the risk of cancer?

Couric: I defer to the physicians, but maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly and quitting smoking (or never starting) can lower one’s cancer risk. Some types of cancer, like colorectal, can often be prevented entirely through appropriate screening.

Your husband and your sister died of cancer. Is there a good way to broach discussion of its risks with loved ones? How did you talk to your daughters about it?

Couric: This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I referred to a number of books and talked to psychologists about it. I never wanted to give up hope, for Jay or for my children. When Ellie would ask if her Dad was going to die, I would answer as honestly as I could by saying, “I really hope not, sweetie, but I’m not sure. He has a very difficult illness, but his doctors are doing everything they possibly can.” I know that when children have a sick parent it can be very isolating. A representative from CancerCare, a wonderful nonprofit organization, suggested an exercise for Ellie’s class called the worry cup. Each child puts a penny in a cup and talks about what they’re worried about. Ellie’s teacher told me afterward that it was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of her teaching career. It seems a lot of the girls in first grade were worried about something. As a result, I think Ellie felt less alone. We have continued the dialogue about Jay since he died 10 years ago. Recently, Ellie asked me about the day Jay died when we were on vacation. The three of us were at dinner and we were all crying, but it was very therapeutic. I think you have to take cues from your children and always seek a professional to help guide you. Sometimes you have to be more proactive than you would like in this situation, but it’s something you won’t regret. Healing is an ongoing process.

What’s your advice for patients who are considering participating in a clinical trial?

Couric: I think selecting a cancer treatment or clinical trial is a very personal decision, and people need to talk with their doctors and decide what is right for them. For patients, it’s an important way to access investigational new therapies that are being studied in different types of cancer, as well as to help others who may be diagnosed in the future. Jay’s diagnosis was late-stage, and there were no clinical trials he was eligible to enroll in. My sister Emily participated in a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson. The special’s Web site ( will provide links to databases that people can search to find clinical trials in their area. They can then talk with their doctors, to see whether there is a trial that is right for them.

You must hear from many people who have battled cancer. What do they tell you?

Couric: I have received thousands of letters from people telling me about their experiences with colorectal cancer as well as other cancers. Many are heartbreaking. Many others thank me for raising research dollars and awareness and for motivating them to get screened. It is profoundly gratifying and humbling to have one person say you helped save his or her life, and we have received many, many letters saying just that.

A caregiver takes on an extraordinary amount of work and stress. Any advice?

Couric: Yes, I would suggest that patients and caregivers use the skills and resources of their whole health-care team, including their nurses and social workers, who can help provide and identify sources of support. I also believe it’s important to involve your family and friends — ask them for help. Family and friends often want to help, but don’t know how. Sometimes they want to respect your privacy, and stay away. I think still others feel uncomfortable with the notion of illness. It makes them think too much of their own mortality. Reach out to them and tell them how they can help.

Has your time in the belly of the beast of cancer left you with any larger lessons?

Couric: My husband Jay was an ambitious and accomplished man, both personally and professionally. But before he died, he noted, “Nothing really matters except your family and friends.” I think Jay said it all.






©2008 Stanford University  |  Terms of Use  |  About Us