Power of Celebrity
By Rich McManus
Photos by Bill Branson
On the Front Page...
Katie Couric is an unusually beautiful woman several degrees more attractive in person than she appears on television's hard, flat screen and she brought out an unusually warm and enthusiastic response from a turn-away crowd that came to Masur Auditorium May 18 to see her accept the National Cancer Institute's second annual Extraordinary Communicators Award.
Couric's "aw shucks" self-regard, her sense of humor, and her warmth toward those around her she even remembered a stairway encounter with an individual who rose to question her at the end of her talk produced ample good feelings in the hall, elevating the occasion beyond mere acceptance of a professional honor. Her playfulness with her hosts at one point she pinched NCI deputy director Dr. Alan Rabson's cheek while both posed for a photographer bespoke the ease that makes Couric such an appealing and successful television journalist: she brings out the people in people.
It wasn't an altogether easy occasion, either. Three years ago, Couric endured the wrenching trial of losing her husband to colorectal cancer, a battle during which she had to appear on television morning after morning, "pretending that everything was okay at my house." In the aftermath of that ordeal, she helped launch the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA), and has become a public spokesperson for the need to be screened for the disease. She even underwent the procedure herself on the Today show, and helped launch a 5-part series on "Confronting Cancer."
"I'm so happy to be here at the National Cancer Institute," she opened. "Cancer takes far too many lives every year." She honored the memory of Eleanor Nealon, after whom the NCI award is named, calling her "gutsy, smart, passionate and compassionate...I am honored to be given an award that bears her name." Couric's cancer advocacy, she stated, "is professionally the most gratifying thing I've ever done." But it's had an unforeseen cost.
"People can't resist sharing intimate information with me about their colons," she deadpanned. "I've even gotten photos detailing all the nooks and crannies that's always a treat. I've become the pinup girl for gastroenterology... sometimes it gets to be TMI too much information."
She gets many letters from the public, and read one from a man who self-diagnosed his own colon cancer after reading the Couric family's story in Time magazine. The author had concluded, "I feel I owe my life to you." Couric said, "It doesn't get much better than that in the fan mail department."
She briefly recounted the swift course of her husband's disease, which struck without much warning in April 1997 and was fatal within 9 months. Couric made herself a quick expert on colorectal cancer, consulting a variety of cancer centers and medical journals. "Al Rabson was one of my very best worker bees," she said. "His caring and compassion were very valuable to me...His wife (NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein) is way cool, too. I hope she doesn't mind that his office is covered with photos of me."
Couric's tragedy launched her on a mission: "I set out to save the colons. Colorectal cancer is the number two killer of men and women in this country. Granted, it might not be first-date conversation, but there's no reason that (screening) can't be discussed openly and candidly. After all, there's a 92 percent cure rate if it's detected early enough."
To alleviate public fears of the screening accomplished by a small flexible scope Couric volunteered for the procedure "despite the fact that I'm under 50. I drank my Golightly (a colon-clearing aperitif)," she said mock-grimacing, then asked, "Who came up with that name?"
Through TV, magazine stories and NCCRA, Couric has succeeded in creating a nationwide buzz about colorectal cancer, spreading the word "much more effectively than what the medical profession can muster," marveled NCI director Dr. Richard Klausner.
"People are talking, screenings are up dramatically, but we have to go beyond screening now," Couric said. "There are still more than 130,000 cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed annually. I hope more young lives can be saved...Perhaps one day everyone can be screened. I am very pleased to hear that Medicare recipients now get a screening reminder...this is a big step in the right direction."
NCCRA's approach is "educating primary care physicians to tell their patients about the need for screening," Couric explained. The high-risk categories for screening are those age 50 and older, African-Americans, and those with a family history of the disease. But an NCCRA survey found that family doctors failed to mention the need for colorectal screening in 56 percent of respondents over age 50, and in 78 percent of black respondents. "Three out of four adults say their physician never mentioned the importance of screening in an NCCRA survey," she said. The alliance also promotes "peer-to-peer communication" among general practitioners and internists, she added. "All of our talk about colon cancer won't mean a thing if the docs aren't listening."
NCCRA disbursed $2.1 million in its first year (2000) and expects to spend $3 million this year; funds take the form of unrestricted block grants to researchers who can justify both their studies and their costs to a medical advisory board. A new effort this year is to enroll more patients in clinical trials. Already, a sibling-pair colon clinical trial, abetted by a web site and toll-free phone number, has generated 3,000 potential pairs. "We filled the trial in less than 1 month, and had expected it would take far longer," Couric reported. "Our goal is to fill 10 trials and get the research rolling as soon as possible."
Couric concluded, "Without people enrolled in trials, the science cannot move in the right direction...We will wipe out this disease, and it will happen in my lifetime, or at least we will turn it into a manageable, chronic disease.
"You really are my heroes," she told the NIH audience. "I wish I could quadruple the budget for NIH, but you have to go see 'W' about that. You are truly doing God's work here."
During a question session after her half-hour talk, Couric said that health and medical reporting is about to become more prominent, largely due to the aging of the baby boomers. "We might do a whole segment (on Today) about the importance of clinical trials God knows we have time for it with our new 3-hour format."
To view clips of Couric's talk, visit http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/excl.
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