Katie Couric, cancer advocate, speaks to ACG: ‘Cancer found me’
In a lecture dedicated to her sister’s memory, Katie Couric engaged in an honest and raw conversation with ACG President Mark Pochapin, MD, about how her grief over her husband’s death and then her sister’s spurred Couric into action and advocacy.
“I had a moral obligation to share what I had learned,” Couric said about her work in the wake of her husband Jay Monahan’s death from colon cancer.
It was in her husband’s diagnosis, treatment and death that Couric connected with Pochapin, connecting the two through grief and Couric’s funding of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center where Pochapin previously worked.
Colorectal cancer advocacy, education
Couric recounted Monahan’s diagnosis at 42 years old when he was found to have an orange-sized tumor.
“Like so many men his age ... Jay didn’t have a physician. He didn’t have an internist or a GP,” she said. Instead, he saw her physician and was “promptly dispatched” to New York Hospital.
Through the next few months, Monahan underwent a bowel resection and began treatment with Couric getting a crash course in colorectal cancer and its poor outcomes. After he passed, Couric realized the ignorance of the general public about this disease.
“Nobody had really, really pulled the curtain up on colorectal cancer. ... It was high time I really helped people understand this No. 2 cancer killer of men and women combined,” she said. “I wanted to do what I could to help prevent this from happening to other families.”
This drive led her to start the National Colorectal Cancer Research Foundation and even allowed The Today Show to air her colonoscopy from prep to results. This led to “The Couric Effect” in which colonoscopies soared in the time after her own.
“When Jay died, it was almost as if viewers felt they had lost a member of their family. ... Because of that, they had this very, very strong emotional connection,” she said. “They knew me and knew that I was coming from a place of authenticity and genuineness in that I wanted them to learn what I learned. It made them stop and listen and really take in the information because they know I was deadly serious about it.”
Serious enough to start a GI cancer center because she remembered how disjointed cancer care could be – handling chemotherapy, radiation, metastasis, nutrition and therapy.
“It just felt like we were running around chasing the cancer, both literally and figuratively,” she said. “I thought, why not have a place where you can treat the whole patient and the family. It’s one-stop-shopping if you will.”
Pochapin agreed, pointing to the Monahan Center as one of the first full-service disease centers.
“It’s also a model,” he said. “At the time it was kind of a novel concept of bringing everything together under one roof with one care delivery team, whether that be the social worker or the nutritionist, the geneticists, one patient-centered care team. Now that’s really the model for so many different types of medical illnesses that we deal with.”
Loss and overarching cancer advocacy
At the same time Couric was educating the public through her role as an on-air journalist, her sister Emily Couric, was a state senator in Virginia. Through that role, Emily Couric introduced legislation requiring insurance coverage for colon cancer screening. As the first example of such legislation, Virginia laid the groundwork for 26 states to follow suit.
“Clearly, she started a movement,” Couric said.
Unfortunately, not long after passing that legislation and in the wake of Couric’s historic colonoscopy, Emily Couric called her sister with another devastating blow.
“I have pancreatic cancer and it’s all over my liver,” Couric remembered her sister saying.
Emily Couric passed from pancreatic cancer. Her sister remembered what could have been.
“It was just so heartbreaking to see this happen to my incredible sister, who everybody believed was going to be the first female governor of Virginia. She had such a bright political future,” Couric said. “She had to drop out of the race for Lieutenant governor ... and Tim Kaine replaced Emily and ultimately became the governor.”
Couric remembered her sister as healthy, intelligent and cut short at 52 years old because, yet again, the cancer was too advanced when it was found.
“Every time we do a colonoscopy on a patient, we should be thankful for Emily, for what she was able to do to allow it to be a screening procedure. She really did set the course,” Pochapin said. “The two of you have really changed the whole paradigm and our ability to screen with colonoscopy. One, by demystifying and educating and going through it yourself and on Emily’s side, making sure it's available and paid for.”
After Emily’s diagnosis, Couric moved beyond colorectal cancer and in 2008 founded Stand Up 2 Cancer with fellow activists.
“I like a challenge and I felt like I had done a lot for colon cancer awareness and then the Monahan center, but it struck me that cancer in general needed more support ... especially researchers and scientists needed support,” she said. “When I heard that only one in 10 promising research proposals is funded at the National Cancer Institute, I thought we’ve got to pick up the slack. We have to support these scientists because the only way we're going to come up with better therapies.”
SU2C has created 23 different “dream teams” who are working on different cancers and contributing to the approval of various therapies, garnering more than $600 million in pledges from companies and corporations.
“We have to come up with better ways to treat this disease, which is so wildly and confounding and can outwit whatever's thrown at it,” she said. “I've really devoted my life not only making people aware of colorectal cancer, the symptoms and the things they can do to detect it early or prevent it altogether but coming up and helping scientists come up with better therapies so that we can not just prolong life, but hopefully save lives.”
As a patient advocate, a research funder and an aunt to a gastroenterologist, Couric expressed her appreciation for what Pochapin and other physicians do.
“I so appreciate what you all do,” Couric said. “It must be hard ... when there is a case where it is bleak and devastating, showing care and concern. ... How do you give really hard information but do it in a way that’s compassionate and caring?”
In fact, when asked what is most important to teach future physicians, Couric quickly said “compassion.”
“Treat people in a way that takes under consideration the whole person. ... Be your own little mini Monahan center by understanding all the needs of the patient. They may have children and they need may need to understand how they can talk to their kids. Their kids may need support for this. They may need psychological support. The patient made need nutritional support. So, when you think about it, don’t just think about treating the cancer; think about treating the person.”
Just as physicians often say medicine is their calling, Couric believes hers is advocacy and helping physicians better treat their patients.
“Cancer found me. I didn’t go looking for it, but once it did, I decided that I want to channel all my energy into it,” she said. “I have so much respect for physicians. What you do is so important because if you don't have your health, as we know, you really have nothing.
“It must be very hard work. It must be taxing and tiring, but I don't think you all probably hear enough how important you are and how appreciated and valued you are. I just want to end by saying thank you for what you do each and every day for so many people who need you so much. So, thank you.”