Katie Couric has been a journalist for over 30 years. In that time, no story has been as personal as her husband’s colorectal cancer diagnosis and death in 1998. The loss of her husband, Jay Monahan, as well as her sister, Emily, to pancreatic cancer in 2001, inspired the former Yahoo Global Anchor to become the passionate advocate for cancer research she still is today.

“I just knew I had to take my grief, anger and the sense of powerlessness I experienced,” she said, “and channel it so something positive could come out of these terrible losses.”

Giving hope a name

Couric co-founded Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance along with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) and Lilly Tartikoff. In her husband’s honor, she also co-founded the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health.

“Lives are being saved and people are living longer, with better quality of life, because of the discoveries that are being made in the lab and developed into new therapies for patients,” she said, noting 89 percent of women with breast cancer are still living five years after their diagnosis because of early diagnosis and effective treatment.

However, the number of people in the U.S. under 50 being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is increasing at an alarming rate. The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) recently convened a meeting to try to understand why this is happening and what can be done to stop it. 

When scientists tell me they predict we may eradicate or at least manage many cancers in my lifetime, I believe them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies, advocacy groups, and expert physicians and researchers explored questions of whether there are unidentified risk factors and what role family history plays in colorectal cancer. Groups also questioned whether they could re-examine the risks and benefits of screening the younger adult population and what clinicians need to know to ensure prompt and effective diagnosis in younger people.

“I’m proud that the NCCRA was one of the sponsors of the summit,” Couric said. “Losing someone you love, at any age, is devastating. Losing a parent, a spouse or friend in the prime of life has a terrible ripple effect. Every good report card or graduation, every special holiday or challenging decision my daughters had to make, I was sad for Jay to miss, and [daughters] Ellie and Carrie not to have their dad.”

The road map for addressing the worrisome early onset of colorectal cancer will be complex, involving educating medical professionals and the public, advocating for new policies and propelling science forward. But experts agree, given the stakes, that federal agencies, physicians, researchers and advocacy organizations must strategically align to address the distressing trend. It’s a public health challenge that must be tackled now.

Breakthroughs

Couric’s work with SU2C has raised $280 million to speed up groundbreaking cancer research, which can get therapies to patients fast.

“We are on the threshold of so many breakthroughs—and when scientists tell me they predict we may eradicate or at least manage many cancers in my lifetime, I believe them,” she said. “Everyone can help. They deserve our respect and support because they won’t be able to do it without us.”