Katie Couric on What Every Cancer Caregiver Needs to Know
- Since losing her husband to colorectal cancer in 1998, broadcast news journalist Katie Couric has used her platform to raise awareness about cancer.
- Couric's famous on-air colonoscopy on "Today" in 2000 paved the way for what the medical community calls the “Katie Couric effect,” a giant public awareness push for colorectal cancer screenings and education.
- Currently, she's a spokesperson for "With Love, Me," a campaign that encourages survivors and caregivers to write letters to their younger selves offering advice.
- Couric encourages cancer caregivers to make sure they’re making self-care a priority while they care for others, and to find strength by sharing stories and connecting with others.
Cancer not only affects the life of the person with the diagnosis, but also the lives of the caregivers around that individual — their family, friends, and partners.
This is something iconic broadcast news journalist Katie Couric knows all too well.
It was just over 2 decades ago, at the height of her "Today Show" fame, when Jay Monahan, the news anchor's late husband, received a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
He died in 1998 at the age of 42.
Three years later, Couric’s sister, Emily Couric, a Virginia Democratic state senator, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 54.
Moved by her experiences, Couric decided to use her celebrity to raise awareness and advocate for both cancer caregivers and survivors alike. She’s made a tremendous impact.
In fact, Couric's famous on-air colonoscopy on "Today" in 2000 paved the way for something the medical community calls the “Katie Couric effect,” a giant public awareness push for colorectal cancer screenings and education, not just domestically but around the globe.
She co-founded Stand Up to Cancer in 2008, an organization that raises millions of dollars to fund research efforts and innovations, and she regularly participates in a number of events to continue raising awareness.
Currently, Couric is a spokesperson for "With Love, Me," a campaign from Merck in partnership with more than a dozen patient advocacy groups including CancerCare, a nonprofit that provides cancer-related counseling and support services, and Savor Health, which offers healthy food and online counseling to people touched by cancer.
Through the campaign, survivors and caregivers write letters to their younger selves, offering the advice and support they wish they had or knew of back when cancer first entered their lives.
Couric sat down with Healthline to talk about her own past experiences as a cancer caregiver, and how she’s become something of a personal counselor to her many fans who find themselves in similar situations and solicit her advice through social media.
"In some ways it takes me back to my own situation — gosh, 22 years ago now when Jay was first diagnosed. So, it sometimes is difficult, but I also remember how I wished I had someone to talk to who has been through a similar experience," Couric said.
"I remember so well that feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness, and so if I can be helpful or useful in giving people advice or, you know, helping them navigate the system or helping them navigate their own feelings, [it's] something that I’m happy to do," she added.
Couric said she could "probably spend 24/7 doing that kind of work because there’s such a need" and admitted it can feel “a bit overwhelming” at times.
Nevertheless, she's happy to help people when she can, even if it's just to provide a shoulder to cry on or an attentive ear.
Where cancer caregivers can seek support
When her husband was diagnosed, Couric says she didn't really have many personal sources of information or support to turn to.
"Honestly, I was so overwhelmed with working, taking care of two little kids and trying to find the best treatment for Jay, I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to," Couric said, adding that she did speak with a social worker and psychologist that the hospital had on staff.
"In terms of someone else whose husband was going through this, I didn’t really have those kinds of connections at my fingertips," she said.
Couric added, "Looking back, I don’t know if I would have made use of them, like especially if someone had lost their husband. I think that would have been emotionally very difficult for me, because I kept trying to be as positive as I could.”
One place she did turn to was one of her current partners in the new campaign, CancerCare, seeking their help when one of her daughters was struggling with her dad's illness.
Couric encourages others in need to do the same, pointing out they're a valuable resource.
CancerCare currently serves more than 180,000 people, with their on-call oncology social workers helping 92,234 people through their popular "Hopeline," according to the organization's website.
Caregivers need care too
Cancer touches people from all walks of life, all over the world.
In fact, the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be more than 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses by the end of this year alone in the United States.
The institute reports the majority of caregivers, or "informal caregivers" (those who aren't part of the person's official medical care team), are 55 or older, women, and relatives of the person who has cancer.
Jessica Chapman, a breast cancer social worker at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, told Healthline that being a caregiver can be very challenging.
She says many people who help care for a loved one or friend living with cancer often already lead busy lives. They might have kids of their own, full-time jobs, activities, or their own health issues to tend to.
When they suddenly find themselves doing everything from taking their loved one to appointments and helping them with domestic tasks to taking the lead on child or elderly care, Chapman says it can feel overwhelming.
"Additionally, our caregivers are often providing their loved ones with significant emotional and spiritual support. Furthermore, the caregiver may be tasked with supplementing lost income if the patient is unable to work," she said.
"All of these additional responsibilities and emotional strain can lead caregivers to neglect their own emotional and physical health, and lead to what we sometimes call 'caregiver burnout,'" Chapman added.
What should a caregiver do to seek their own care?
Chapman says self-care is imperative: It shouldn't be skipped, even if it comes in the form of taking a short walk, practicing a daily meditation, or "engaging in a restorative hobby."
"The important thing is to develop a routine. This provides an opportunity for the caregiver to recharge. Additionally, asking and accepting help from others is very important. There may be relatives, neighbors, or friends who are willing to help with chores, pitch in with child care, or even accompany the patient to their treatments," Chapman explained.
Beyond this, Chapman stresses that many caregivers benefit from getting their own counsel from a mental health professional who can help them "process their feelings and develop additional coping skills."
The importance of storytelling for caregivers
There's no road map for how to navigate the complexities of supporting someone you love who has received a cancer diagnosis.
Couric says that when she and her family were dealing with her husband's illness, it was in the "very nascent stage of the internet, and I also think that was a time when people just weren't, in general, open about sharing their personal lives and what was going on in their families."
She notes that we live in a different age today, a time when the stigma around cancer is somewhat diminished, and social media has given people a platform where they can seek advice and look for support.
Chapman adds there are many in-person as well as online caregiver support groups nationwide.
Chapman says one thing that doesn't always get discussed is that caregivers should find ways to "connect with and enjoy the person for whom they are providing care," as it can restore a sense of normalcy to not just day-to-day life, but also the relationship between caregiver and loved one.
Couric says that sense of interpersonal connection is part of the appeal of the new campaign she’s participating in. It centers on giving people the tool of storytelling to open up about their own experiences.
When it comes to her own role as a storyteller, Couric says she thinks she's always been an empathetic person, but that empathy was heightened after going through her experiences with her husband and sister.
"I think that I became more empathetic as a result, and I think when people were going through losses, I think they felt even more comfortable talking to me because they understood how I had been affected by it personally," Couric explained.
"So, I think it just made me even better at my job in terms of understanding and appreciating and relating to painful situations where people had to deal with any kind of illness and loss," she added.
Couric says that just the act of opening up and sharing with others can provide a needed catharsis, a sense of community.
"I think the challenge for people is you don't want your cancer experience to define everything about you," she said. "I think that’s interesting for everyone to think about. Even if you survived cancer, if you're a caregiver, I think it can be very defining."