Couric's Colorectal Cancer Crusade
You've seen her on TV. Who hasn't? It's hard to miss Katie Couric.
Couric is a $15-million-a-year megastar. She became the first solo female news anchor in network history when she replaced Dan Rather at the "CBS Evening News" in 2006. Before that, she spent 15 years on NBC's top-rated "Today" show.
But ratings wars aren't the only fight in her life. Her husband, attorney Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998. Couric is deeply committed to fighting this disease, which kills more than 55,000 Americans a year.
Here are some snapshots from the front lines of the war she's waged:
At a U.S. Senate hearing, Couric told of being the wife of a colorectal cancer victim. "During this terrible struggle, I got a quick and painful education about this devastating disease. But I also learned that it has a 90 percent or better cure rate when detected early." That makes colon cancer screening a key weapon in the fight against a disease no one needs to die from.
Couric underwent a colonoscopy on the "Today" show in 2000 to prove it was virtually painless. She was "greatly encouraged," she recalls, when researchers reported a 20 percent jump in colonoscopies nationwide after that show. It was a development they called the "Couric Effect."
Couric has continued her efforts through the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA). She founded the group with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) in 2000. The same University of Michigan team that documented the "Couric Effect" believes the increase in colonoscopies has been sustained ever since.
In March 2004, Couric oversaw the opening of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. The center is funded in part through support from Couric and EIF's NCCRA. It provides state-of-the-art gastrointestinal cancer screening, treatment, research, and education. "Our vision for the Monahan Center was born out of my discussions with Jay's gastroenterologist, Dr. Mark Pochapin," she says. The center aims to provide in a single place "all the necessary resources for helping families cope with the disease," she adds.
Besides her job as anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News," Couric is raising two daughters. She is still an advocate for colon cancer research and awareness programs. Her group, EIF's NCCRA, has raised more than $28 million to promote the importance of screening and support the research of nine scientists at leading institutions around the country.
"When it comes to colon cancer, my message is pretty simple: Get tested!" she says. "Whenever I can, I really try to underline that message by pointing out that colon cancer is beatable, provided that it's caught early enough. And, through regular screening and detection and removal of potentially precancerous polyps, this disease may even be prevented.
"In my own life, I've got a pretty hectic schedule. But I do my best to protect my health by eating right, exercising frequently, and making sure I get the screening tests that will protect me against cancer, and especially colon cancer," Couric says.
"Getting a colonoscopy isn't the most fun thing in the world, but the test is painless and it doesn't take very long. It is just good common sense to make sure you undergo the screening procedure whenever your physician recommends it."
How to beat colon cancer
Colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer as a cause of U.S. cancer deaths.
"The real tragedy is that most of these deaths are preventable," says Keith Bennett, M.D., a surgeon in Pine Bluff, Ark. Colorectal cancer can be cured if caught early.
Doctors "have some excellent diagnostic tools" for finding colon cancer, he says. "Probably the most helpful is colonoscopy, in which the doctor uses a tiny video camera attached to a flexible wire to examine the patient's colon. This device is usually painless and has a high rate of accuracy."
A colonoscopy may find small growths called polyps that can be removed during the test. "Most cancers of the colon are caused by polyps that eventually become malignant," Dr. Bennett says. "But if you catch them early enough, they rarely result in a fatal cancer."
Having a parent, brother, or sister who contracted colorectal cancer before age 60 is one risk factor for the disease. Others include a personal or family history of polyps or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease.
The American Cancer Society recommends that men and women ages 50 and older follow one of these plans to look for colorectal cancer:
A fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test each year; or
A flexible sigmoidoscopy (another test with a special camera) every five years; or
Virtual colonoscopy every five years; or
A double-contrast barium enema every five years; or
A colonoscopy every 10 years; or
A stool DNA test (best interval uncertain)
"None of these tests is painful," says Dr. Bennett, "and they don't take more than a half-hour or so. Why leave yourself vulnerable to colon cancer, when screening and early detection can usually protect you from it?"