Katie Couric is no stranger to health advocacy. In 2000, she was memorably tested for colon cancer on the Today show after her first husband, Jay Monahan, died of colorectal cancer in 1998. Fast forward 25 years and Couric is still raising awareness. In the summer of 2022, the former anchor was diagnosed with stage IA HER2-negative breast cancer.
Since then, she’s made it her mission to ensure every woman gets breast cancer screenings. “When I’m doing a story that I feel passionately about, if it’s something I feel will serve other people, if it’s about getting screened for colon cancer, or, more recently, breast cancer, when I am providing what I know could be life-saving information to people, I almost feel as if I have a higher purpose,” she says. “That gives me a lot of confidence and it gives me incredible purpose.”
Similar to a lot of women during the pandemic, Couric “got off schedule” when it came to her mammogram. “I was actually filming my mammogram, thinking it was just going to be a helpful reminder. And then when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that gave my mission a new sense of urgency,” says Couric. “I like to go where no woman has gone before, whether it’s the colon or discussing dense breasts — I think that we have to destigmatize and demystify and normalize a lot of these conversations about our bodies.”
For Couric, that starts with explaining complicated things in a way that’s easily digestible and motivates them to act. “I want to help women understand that if they have dense breasts, which 45% of women 40 and over have, a mammogram may indicate they have breast density, but it may not be enough to diagnose breast cancer per se,” she says. “We have to be responsible for helping all the people we love to stay healthy. I know it’s a cliche, but if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”
While Couric realized her privilege during her cancer journey, she also wanted to highlight the people who don’t have that kind of access. “One of the things I kept thinking about when I was going through my breast cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment, and surgery, was how lucky I was that I had access to the best doctors, to the most high-tech equipment,” says Couric. “But I kept thinking, ‘What about women who don’t?’”
There is a real issue of access for all women, particularly Black women who have a 40% higher mortality rate. That’s due to a lack of screening, lack of education about screening, and lack of access, and also the fact that Black women tend to have denser breasts.
According to the Journal of Cancer Institute, women with heterogeneously dense breast tissue have about a 1.2 times greater risk of developing breast cancer than women with average breast density. Women with extremely dense breast tissue have about twice the risk. “Because of all those factors, that’s something that I care deeply about equalizing, and Stand Up to Cancer has really focused on health equity,” Couric adds.
In the last few years, researchers, clinicians, and scientists have tried to figure out the problem of access. And Couric is trying to spread the word too. “I talk about it to anyone who will listen,” she says. “We need to ensure health insurance pays for mammograms and for additional screenings such as ultrasounds and MRIs. Women can’t get those additional screenings because they often can’t afford them.”
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