Katie Couric On How Early Cancer Screenings Save Lives

On Thursday, March 16, 2023, award-winning journalist, presenter, and writer Katie Couric sat down with renowned oncologist Diane Reidy-Lagunes, M.D. for a conversation about media and public health at The Paley Center for Media. The live event was used as a recording of Reidy-Lagunes' podcast "Cancer Straight Talk from MSK".

Couric began championing public health in 2000 when she underwent an on-air colonoscopy on the "Today Show" to raise awareness for screenings. She decided to do this after her husband died of colorectal cancer. Speaking to Health Digest about the decision to share her screening, she said, "I thought because I had this big platform with millions of people tuning in every morning that I could hopefully educate people and motivate them to get screened. I really didn't know what the outcome would be." Her impact turned out to be immense. By some estimations, the number of patients getting colonoscopies increased by close to 20%, a phenomenon later coined "The Couric Effect." During her discussion with Reidy-Lagunes, Couric discussed how cancer has touched her life and how she is continuing to advocate for patients and early screenings today.

The importance of cancer screenings

Since Katie Couric's late husband was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer when the couple was in their early forties, she's become a huge advocate for cancer screenings and cancer awareness. While speaking to Dr. Diane Reidy-Lagunes, Couric said, "I was really lucky until I turned 40. No one in my family had ever really been sick." She added that when her husband was diagnosed so young, it was a huge shock. His cancer had already progressed far enough that he only lived another nine months. "It was incredibly traumatic," Couric said. But, looking back, she said if they'd been more aware of the symptoms beforehand, her husband may have gotten checked sooner and caught the cancer in an earlier stage. If colorectal cancer is found and diagnosed in the localized stage, there's a 91% survival rate, according to Cancer.Net. This survival rate drops drastically as the cancer progresses.

Recently Couric has been open about her own experience with cancer. Her doctor discovered breast cancer during a routine mammogram and breast ultrasound. Fortunately, it was caught early on, giving Couric a good outcome. Her diagnosis was even more motive for the journalist to promote screenings and encourage others to stay vigilant about their health. "I don't want people to say if only if only I had gotten screened," Couric said to Reidy-Lagunes.

Removing the stigma from cancer diagnosis

Both Katie Couric and Diane Reidy-Lagunes, M.D. are committed to promoting awareness and encouraging conversations around cancer. During the podcast recording, they discussed the discomfort that many face discussing cancer, health, and death. Reidy-Lagunes suggested that people should start having these conversations with loved ones before it's a reality. Though these are difficult topics, she believes it's important to understand your loved ones' wishes for the end of life. 

She also hopes having honest conversations can remove some of the taboos around such topics and help people realize that a cancer diagnosis can happen to anyone. "I do think that there's a stigma. I always tell my patients, there's nothing at all they did or didn't do to get these diseases," Reidy-Lagunes told Health Digest. "Many of them, we don't know why it's happening, but it's not anything that they could have prevented."

By pushing forward the conversation about cancer, Couric also hopes to promote more cancer research. In this mission, she co-founded Stand Up To Cancer, a program that raises funds for cancer research. Couric explained that their goal is to create a collaborative rather than competitive research space so that the best minds can come together to find the best treatments.