It's been just two years since Katie Couric's husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer at age 42. Looking back, the popular co-host of NBC's Today show recalls that the only clue they had that anything might be wrong was that Monahan, who worked as a TV legal analyst, often felt tired and achy. That wasn't too surprising. He'd been busy covering O.J. Simpson's civil trial for MSNBC, shuttling back and forth between California and the home he shared in New York City with Katie and their two young daughters. Says Couric: "We thought it would get better when his schedule improved."
It didn't. After the trial ended in January 1997, Monahan's fatigue persisted. A few months later, doubled over with abdominal pain, he went to a doctor. A series of X rays and other scans revealed that Monahan was suffering from advanced colon cancer--so advanced that the disease had spread to his liver. He died Jan. 24, 1998, two weeks after his 42nd birthday.
Like most Americans, Couric and Monahan had never thought much about colon cancer. Why should they? Monahan was young and healthy and had never smoked. There was no history of colon cancer in his family. Until her husband became sick, Couric didn't realize how common cancers of the large intestine, which includes the colon and the rectum, are. Or how deadly. Or how preventable.
Colorectal cancer strikes 130,000 men and women each year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Although it's more common after the age of 50, younger people are also affected. Over the next 12 months, more than 55,000 Americans--a quarter of them under 50--will die of the disease, making it the second leading cause of death due to cancer, after lung cancer.
It doesn't have to be this way. "This is a disease almost no one needs to die from," says Carolyn Aldige, president of the Cancer Research Foundation of America. Provided it's caught in its earliest, most treatable stages, colorectal cancer is curable more than 90% of the time. If more people underwent routine screening to find small tumors, experts estimate, the death toll would drop 50% to 75%, saving around 30,000 to 40,000 lives a year.
To save those lives, the U.S. Congress, prompted by more than 30 health groups, has designated March as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. There will be surveys and special websites and public-service announcements spreading the good news--that early detection works, that treatment is improving and that what you eat and how you exercise can dramatically reduce your chances of developing the disease.
For her part, Couric, starting March 6, will be host of a week-long series about the disease on the Today show. In what must be a television first, she will broadcast footage of her own intestine, taken during a recent colon exam. (She's fine.) Couric has also joined longtime friend and cancer activist Lilly Tartikoff (whose husband Brandon died of Hodgkin's disease in 1997) and Hollywood fund raiser Lisa Paulsen (who specializes in connecting celebrities to worthy causes; see following story) to finance a public-education campaign and urge more aggressive research into colon cancer.