Hoda Kotb met Ken Duane on a plane flight, and was introduced to Jill Conley at a gala supporting breast cancer awareness. Two chance encounters; two people who affect her to this day.
On Tuesday Duane and Conley joined Hoda on TODAY as part of the show's week-long #InspiredBy series, in which anchors and those on social media share their inspirations.
“I decided to pick people who any one of us could have met, but if you turned right instead of turning left, you would have missed them,’’ Hoda said. “After a chance meeting, I truly hit the brakes and said, ‘Today is a game-changer in my life.’”
She met Duane on a plane flight in 2007 while she was in the midst of a fight with breast cancer.
“I was on the plane ride coming home, and all I wanted to do was curl up in a blanket, put my headphones on and just sleep the pain away,’’ she said.
She was about to listen to her iPod when Duane struck up a conversation with her that she entered reluctantly.
“I didn't know if she wanted to be in the conversation or out of the conversation when we started,’’ Duane told TODAY. “We began to talk about her cancer, and her fight with cancer and where she was in her life."
“He said breast cancer is part of you,’’ Hoda recalled. “He said it's like going to college or getting married or working at NBC. I will never forget what he said, because it changed the course of my life.”
“Don’t hog your journey,’’ Duane recalled telling her. “Share your journey with others, and you’re a power of example. Think of what you are able to accomplish.”
Since that conversation, Hoda has become a regular participant in breast cancer walks and speaking events.
“That statement changed my life,’’ an emotional Hoda said. “It's funny: A story you've repeated and thought about and still makes you feel like that. If I hadn’t gotten sick, if I hadn’t met Ken, if I hadn’t gotten brave, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
The breast cancer cause also helped Hoda meet Conley at a gala in the Cayman Islands to raise awareness and funding. Conley, 35, is in the midst of a fight with terminal cancer, and has inspired many with her stunning fashion shoots and beauty in the face of her disease.
“It's so funny when I look at Jill, all I see is the light from her eyes, and I wanted to be in her aura, in her circle,’’ Hoda said. “I knew that she had breast cancer at some point, and if you look closely you see one breast and the other is flat.”
“If I show my scars, it's going to help so many other people out there because even if you don’t have a scar on the outside, you might have one on the inside,’’ Conley told TODAY.
Hoda recalled Conley speaking at the event about how doctors told her she had only months to live. Conley then told a silent room, “I think I’m the luckiest woman in the room.”
“The weird thing is, I think she was the luckiest girl in the room,’’ Hoda said. “I looked at her and I thought, ‘You know what? I'd rather live to be 35 years old and be Jill then live to be 65 years old and be that cranky woman who was just complaining about the dinner.”
Conley has kept a journal for her nieces, documenting any advice she might give them if she’s not around. “Every time I have a thought in my mind of something I would tell them, I just go and I write in the journal so whenever they would want to ask me something, they can just open up the journal, and there’s my answer,’’ she said.
“You know she’s ill, and you know her time is limited, but somehow you want nothing more than to be like her,’’ Hoda said.
Conley’s positivity in the face of a difficult diagnosis has inspired Hoda and others.
“I stay positive because to me it's the word ‘life,’’’ Conley said. “I have life today. You just take every moment, and you cherish it and don’t worry about the stuff that you can’t have. Focus on what you do have.”
“If you had the medical problems that Jill has, who wouldn’t be shaking their fist at God, saying ‘why me?’ But not her,’’ Hoda said. “She just lives, and you go, ‘Oh, I'll have what she's having.’’’