It has been 17 years since Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy on Today, but the segment continues to influence people to be screened for colorectal cancer.
Two years prior, in 1998, Couric’s husband Jay Monahan died from colon cancer — the second-leading cause of cancer death among American men and women combined.
“It felt like this disease cheated Jay out of so many things, taking him when he was just 42, and our girls were 2 and 6 years old,” Couric told SheKnows. “I was compelled to try to have something good come from his senseless death — to help other families avoid the type of terrible loss mine had endured.”
What started as an opportunity to shed light on a procedure that’s not openly discussed turned into an iconic moment in public health and popular culture. It was one of those rare television moments where you knew you were watching something groundbreaking as it was happening, reaching far beyond the usual boundaries of network television.
If the co-host of the top-rated morning show was serious enough about encouraging people to get screened that she opted to go through it in front of millions of people — we’re talking a camera in the colon — you couldn’t help but pay attention.
Couric said that she honestly had no idea that the segment would prompt such a massive response — it was just something she knew she had to do.
"The Today show was a powerful bully pulpit for getting the screening message out, and televising my colonoscopy was a way to de-mystify the procedure,” she explained. “It was something that hadn’t really been done before, and I was thrilled with the reaction.”
But it wouldn’t be the last. In fact, in 2010, Harry Smith — who was co-anchor of the Early Show on CBS at the time — had the first live televised colonoscopy with then-CBS colleague Couric at his side. The trend continued with Couric’s other former colleagues, Matt Lauer and Al Roker getting prostate exams live on Today in November 2013. One month prior, Amy Robach from ABC News had a mammogram live on Good Morning America — and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Sometimes I worry that I started a trend that might go too far: sharing medical experiences on national television,” Couric said. “Maybe we’re pushing the envelope a bit? I guess I’ll know that if I see a live Pap smear on GMA!”
Although the recommended age to start getting screened for colorectal cancer is 50, people with certain risk factors — like a family history of colorectal polyps or cancer — need to talk to their doctors about starting screening at an earlier age.
Polyps and early colon cancers often cause no symptoms, Couric explained. But if someone under the age of 50 experiences rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits lasting more than a few days, blood in the stool, abdominal pain, unexplained fatigue or weight loss, it’s time to see the doctor — right away.
“I’ve heard so many terrible stories of younger people going to a doctor with symptoms, and because of their age, colon cancer was not considered a possibility,” Couric said. “We need to do more to educate physicians that it could be. In the meantime, it’s important to be your own best advocate; if you’re not satisfied, get a second opinion.”
Although there has been progress over the last 15 years or so, there is still a long way to go — especially because this is one of the few types of cancer that can be prevented entirely (when pre-cancerous polyps are removed before becoming malignant), and colon cancer is curable in 90 percent of cases when detected early.
“So screening is key,” Couric added. “Talk to your doctor about when you should be screened, and if you are over 50, as the Nike commercial says, ‘Just Do It!’”
In addition to being a Yahoo Global News anchor, Couric is the co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer, an initiative created to accelerate innovative cancer research with a goal of saving lives. Every March, for Colon Cancer Awareness Month, Couric and SU2C do a new project to highlight the importance of screening.
“I was brainstorming with colleagues, and a lightbulb went off — what if we had a different celebrity screening message for each day of the month to post on social media?” Couric explained.
The project has attracted TV and movie stars of all ages, along with several of Couric’s friends from Today. Marsai Martin, who plays Diane on Black-ish, is 12 years old and has appeared in a video.
According to Couric, some of the videos are funny (“Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker from Transparent might win the prize for that”), while others are poignant. Carla Gugino spoke about her 44-year old friend, Karen Walsh, who is fighting stage-4 colon cancer. Jessica Chastain, who just turned 40, also did a message highlighting the alarming increase in colon cancer among people under the age of 50.
Black Americans have the highest death rate from colon cancer, yet there is no clear-cut consensus among the organizations that issue guidelines about when they should be screened, she noted.
“Some groups recommend starting at 45, and I was thrilled to have Taraji P. Henson, Uzo Aduba and others get the word out,” Couric said.
The videos are available on Couric’s Instagram feed, and she encourages everyone to help spread the word by reposting their favorite video.
“One incredibly gratifying moment this month was when I looked at my Instagram feed and saw that Lori Loughlin posted a video,” she explained. “She had been putting it off, but after seeing some of our daily posts, she had a colonoscopy. That’s our hope: that we’ll have prodded some people who should be screened to go get screened!”
But Couric has inspired more than just celebrities to get screened. Almost two decades after her procedure aired on Today, she still encounters people who are impacted by the segment.
“To this day, the most wonderful compliment I can get is to be told, ‘I got screened for colon cancer because of you, and it saved my life,’” Couric said. “And I still hear that a lot.”
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