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Charm Offensive in the 'War on Cancer'

By Inga Kiderra | July 26, 2006

Take your mom for her birthday. Or, make it a romantic his-and-her excursion. These weren’t sales pitches for a spa vacation but the upbeat exhortations of one of America’s most popular journalists as she urged people to get over their self-consciousness already and seek colonoscopies and other potentially lifesaving cancer-screening procedures.

Couric's Speech
Katie Couric spoke at UCSD July 14 to benefit cancer research.

Katie Couric, the 15-year veteran of NBC’s “Today” show who begins anchoring “CBS Evening News” in September, spoke at UCSD on July 14 to benefit cancer research.

Addressing a sold-out luncheon of 400 at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center, Couric mixed moving stories with pun-laced (sometimes groan-inspiring) humor in her ongoing fight against the disease that took the lives of her husband and sister.

Couric’s campus visit was part of a national “listening tour” in advance of her new job at CBS. When Couric goes on-air Sept. 5 as anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News,” she will become the first permanent female solo anchor of a network evening-news broadcast. She will also contribute to “60 Minutes” and anchor CBS News primetime specials.

During the multi-city tour – which included stops in Tampa, Fla., Dallas, Minneapolis and Denver ahead of San Diego and was to be followed by stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco before returning to New York – Couric combined town-hall style meetings to learn what people want from a national news program (in this case, held at USD) and the more personal, to her, cancer fundraisers.

The UCSD Moores Cancer Center event, called “Partners for Life,” was co-sponsored by KFMB-TV and CBS News.

Couric and the Lab
Couric visits a lab at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center.

Before lunch, Couric toured the Cancer Center with the director, Dr. Dennis Carson, and deputy director for clinical oncology, Dr. Joanne Mortimer.

She visited the Infusion Center, where patients undergo chemotherapy and other intravenous treatments, and spoke with virtually every patient there.

She also visited the research laboratory of David Cheresh, associate director for translational research, who is working on developing the first diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer (the disease that took Couric’s sister), and she dropped in on a cooking class in the Healing Foods Kitchen, where she taste-tested the day’s lesson.

“I am so impressed by everything I saw. It was so moving as well. I got to visit with a lot of patients…. I’m always overwhelmed and awestruck by the incredible fortitude, strength and courage that these people exhibit as they fight this disease,” Couric said. “… I also met some incredible medical professionals.”

Couric and RobinsCouric and Robins
Couric shared laughs with patient Sean Robins while he was undergoing treatment and later, in front of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center, as well.

Arriving a few minutes late to the luncheon – because she had made a point of personal visits with patients – Couric began her talk by recounting her encounter with Sean Robins at the Infusion Center.

Robins, 22, has been battling cancer since he was 16. Couric was particularly taken, she said, with his positive spirit, evidenced in part by his T-shirt that read “my girlfriend is out of town” and his comment to Couric that he likes older women.

Couric lauded the center for using “the brain power and ingenuity of the entire University of California system” and told the story of one of its patients, Karine, who was treated by several of the center’s top specialists.

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Karine [last name withheld on privacy request] was expecting her first child when a routine visit to the ob/gyn turned up an ovarian problem. Following a risky surgery during pregnancy to remove the ovary, Karine learned that the malignant cells were in fact from colon cancer. To buy time to deliver the baby, she began a reduced treatment regimen. She went on a full course of chemotherapy after giving birth, but didn’t respond to the treatment, and the cancer spread to her liver. Facing an extremely poor prognosis (only about 4 percent of patients go on to respond to second-line therapy), Karine, with the help of her doctors chose to try an experimental procedure – radioactive microspheres delivered to the liver through the artery that carries its blood supply. Today, Karine is cancer-free. She stood at the luncheon to audience applause, while her 17-month-old son, Arthur, remained happily oblivious to the reason for the clapping.

Another of the afternoon’s most moving moments occurred when Couric asked the audience to rise, first, if they had been directly affected by cancer and then, if indirectly.

“Very few people,” Couric observed, “are lucky enough to still be seated.”

Couric’s own experience – with her husband’s, Jay Monahan’s, nine-month battle with colon cancer – has turned her into a formidable activist. 

“Given the national bully pulpit I had on the ‘Today’ show, I thought it’d be downright criminal not to take advantage of it,” she said.

Local and national media flocked to cover Couric’s visit.

She helped form the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance to talk about the disease and raise money to move research forward. To date, the NCCRA has raised $26 million. Couric is also credited for raising nationwide colon cancer screening rates by 20 percent, following her own televised colonoscopy in 2000.

Couric noted that it has been 35 years since President Nixon declared “war on cancer” in 1971 – years that have been filled with astonishing advances and technological progress. But some of the first-line treatments for cancer still date back to the 1950s, and the National Cancer Institute, she said, funds only three out of 10 promising research proposals.

“Certainly,” she said, “we can muster our national will and our collective brain-matter to win this fight against cancer.”

Meanwhile, Couric said, the take-home message is that we must be sure to use what science offers us now – and get screened for breast, prostate and colon cancer.

While colon cancer is the second leading cancer killer of men and women, it also has a 90 percent cure rate if detected early. Overcoming shame or fear to get a colonoscopy is key.

“We don’t want anyone to die of embarrassment,” she said.

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