Journalist and former TODAY co-anchor Katie Couric has been a staunch advocate for awareness of colorectal cancer since she lost her first husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998. Amid the pandemic, she’s urging people to be even more proactive about their health.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer deaths in American men and women combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease has been on the rise in younger Americans, even in adults in their 20s and 30s, and the American Cancer Society recently lowered its screening guidelines to start at age 45, not 50.
"Early detection saves lives," said Couric, who is a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, an organization that raises money and awareness for cancer research. "If someone is screened and the disease is diagnosed early, it has a (high) cure rate."
Couric, who memorably got a colonoscopy on air in 2000, said that she would encourage people to get screened even earlier, highlighting the recent deaths of actor Chadwick Boseman and Craig Melvin's brother Lawrence Meadows, who both passed away from colon cancer before the age of 45. Her first husband was also under 45.
"Screening wouldn't have crossed our minds for Jay, when he was diagnosed at 41," said Couric. "... My hope is that we figure out a way to do even broader screening and that we can save even more lives, but until then, people need to pay attention, they need to talk to their doctors ... And they need to get screened."
Couric recommends looking at your own family history and evaluating your risk. The American Cancer Society notes that screening recommendations for people with a family history will vary from person to person, but some may need to get a colonoscopy more often and possibly before the age of 45.
Different demographics also have different risk factors: Black adults are 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40% more likely to die from it than most other groups, according to the American Cancer Society. Latino adults are also more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at later stages, compared to white adults.
To combat this, Stand Up To Cancer recently announced a collaborative initiative with Exact Sciences, a diagnostics company, which aims to increase screening and prevention in medically underserved communities. The collaboration is part of Stand Up To Cancer's larger Health Equity Initiative.
"What we need to understand is how various treatments work on different people, we need to diversify our (clinical trial) patients," Couric said. "We need to study why people of color, Black people in particular, are having much higher incidents of rectal cancer. ... We are making a very concerted effort to widen our net, and to make sure that underserved populations or people who don't have access to medical care are screened for colon cancer and that they are included in all cancer research."
Couric said that over the past year, she's been "very concerned" about reports showing people missing screenings or other preventative care due to the fear of contracting COVID-19.
"We really have to make up for lost time," Couric said. "As we come out of this pandemic, you need to talk to your doctor, you need to make an appointment."