TODAY anchor Hoda Kotb has said the words hundreds of times, assuring the people she interviews they are making a difference by telling their story, that they might be helping someone else out there. But she has never believed in those words 100 percent until now, when she finds herself on the other side of the camera.
“I’m hoping that me telling about my journey and the kind of hell I went through will help somebody at home who thinks ‘Oh god, I’m by myself’ or ‘Oh no, there’s just me,’” Kotb told TODAY's Ann Curry in a very personal interview. “Because it’s not just you. It’s never just you. You know, there’s a whole bunch of us out there.”
There are more than 2.4 million breast cancer survivors alive today, according to the American Cancer Association. One of them is Kotb, who has kept her battle private until now.
“I don’t want to be ‘the girl with cancer’ … I just didn’t want that to be my only thing,” Kotb said. “But it is part of me. And it’s a big part of me. So hopefully I’ll be able to use that part of me to help other people.”
‘You think it’s the end’
Kotb’s initial instinct when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in February was to keep it to herself — partly because she didn’t want people to view her any differently, partly because she had a hard time accepting the diagnosis herself.
“I was one of those people who ate apples. I ran in the park every day, religiously,” Kotb said. “I hardly drank — maybe on the weekends, likely not. Never did anything bad … The idea that on Monday I’m the picture of good health and then on Tuesday I’m going to the doctors and they’re saying, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a problem,’ blew my mind.”
Although doctors recommend women get their first mammogram at 40, Kotb, 43, had not adhered to the guideline. It was her gynecologist who discovered three lumps in her breast during a routine checkup and insisted Kotb check it out. Even then, Kotb was sure it was nothing.
And then she got the call, officially becoming one of the estimated 178,460 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2007.
“You think it’s the end,” Kotb said. “You think to yourself, when you have cancer, that’s the end. That’s what happens. People get it and that’s the end.”
‘I just want to jump’
Cancer is no longer a death sentence. Thanks to early detection and improvements in treatment, mortality rates are dropping faster than ever, according to the annual “Report to the Nation” on cancer.
The first step of Kotb’s treatment was a mastectomy to remove the cancerous lumps. But rather than turn to her journalistic background and research every aspect of the surgery, Kotb admits she “checked out.”
“Sometimes when things are way too big and I can’t control it, I do sort of a weird thing where I kind of check out a little bit,” she said. “It’s all about self-preservation for me. I couldn’t read the books. I didn’t Google it once. It’s like someone telling you what it’s like to jump out of a plane. I don’t want to know. I just want to jump.”
Kotb could not remain checked out after the mastectomy and reconstruction when it was time to decide the next phase of her treatment. Her lymph nodes were clear of cancer, but follow-up treatment was still necessary. The problem was some of the top oncologists in the nation disagreed on the right course of action.
The first oncologist said Kotb needed chemotherapy. The second said chemo was unnecessary to treat her type of cancer; instead she could take a pill every day for the next five years. A third said she couldn’t go wrong with either treatment plan.
Kotb ultimately chose the second option — Tamoxifen, which interferes with the activity of estrogen and reduces the risk of the cancer spreading. While it does not have the same side effects as chemotherapy, it is not without its downsides. Tamoxifen interrupts the reproductive system. Since Kotb will be 48 by the time she finishes the treatment, she knows that she will most likely never bear her own children.
“Every time I swallow those pills, the pills are doing two things to me. They’re fighting my cancer and they’re taking away any opportunity to ever have a kid,” says Kotb, who is separated from her husband of two years. “And I know when I swallow them what I’m doing every time. It’s hard to choke them down. It’s really hard to put them down. But I take them every day, every night …
“It’s all weird because part of me feels sad and part of me feels like I got this new beginning.”
‘Cancer gave me the headline’
And therein lies the irony of Kotb’s experience with cancer. As much as cancer has taken away from Kotb, it has also given her several gifts, including, Kotb believes, her job as anchor of TODAY’s new 10 a.m. hour.
“I don’t think I’d be doing our show if I hadn’t been sick,” said Kotb, who was in her eighth year as a correspondent for NBC’s “Dateline.” (She got her start in the news business as a CBS News assistant in Egypt, where her parents were born.)
“I do think cancer gave me the gift of … being fearless. Cancer gave me the headline, you know, you can’t scare me. That takeaway was the biggest thing I’ve ever gotten.”
‘We’re all in it together’
Two events convinced Kotb to go public with her experience with breast cancer. The first was meeting a stranger on a plane who told her, “Don’t hog your journey.”
“And when he said that, my eyes just opened wide,” Kotb said. “He told me that I could keep everything for myself or I could use it to help people. So right then and there I told myself that when it’s time, I’m going to do it.”
A second event confirmed her decision.
In May Kotb was heading to Central Park for her daily run when she happened upon hundreds of women — some who had undergone surgery, some holding pictures of people who had lost their battle, all wearing pink — walking together to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research.
Tears started falling down Kotb’s face.
“I was totally connected and nobody knew,” Kotb said. “They were all connected to each other. They didn’t know I was connected. And I felt like I was standing on the sidelines, and I thought, ‘Why am I standing on the sidelines?’ Like, get in the game … The game is to help survivors, too. We’re all in it together.”