Couric Joins Long Tradition Of Celebrities With A Cause "Today" To Show Host Being Tested For Colon Cancer.

Posted: March 05, 2000

The Today show will take celebrity health-care advocacy to a new arena tomorrow when its popular host, Katie Couric, invites viewers to share her colonoscopy, a screening test for cancer.

It's a procedure few people want to talk about, much less undergo - and that, said Jeff Zucker, executive producer of the NBC morning show, is precisely the point.

"We're showing it to demonstrate that there's no reason people should be scared," Zucker said. "We try to do it with tremendous sensitivity. We don't show a lot of her colon. We're not going to gross anybody out."

Couric took a camera crew along when she underwent the procedure, for which she was given a mild sedative. Throughout the test, she discusses what is going on.

Couric, 43, joins a long line of public figures to focus attention on a health condition that is considered a conversational taboo. Others include former first lady Betty Ford, who has discussed addiction and breast cancer; former Sen. Robert Dole, who has spoken openly about impotence; and figure skater Scott Hamilton, who talked about having testicular cancer.

"I think people feel uncomfortable discussing their colons, their rectums, their plumbing," Couric has said on the air. "We have three words: Get over it. We don't want people to die of embarrassment."

Zucker and Couric have a strong interest in colon cancer, which the American Cancer Society estimates will strike 130,000 Americans and kill 56,000 this year. The disease can be cured if detected early.

Zucker, 34, had surgery after colon cancer was diagnosed three years ago. Couric's husband, NBC legal commentator Jay Monahan, died of the disease two years ago, at age 42, and she became a staunch advocate of screening.

The weekday show has prepared a 40-minute series on the disease to air in eight-minute segments every day this week between 8 and 8:30 a.m. Couric's colonoscopy will be covered tomorrow and Tuesday.

"Katie has stressed the importance, but she had never had a colonoscopy," Zucker said. "She thought she should know what she was talking about."

In a colonoscopy, a flexible tube with a lighted viewing device is inserted into the rectum and threaded through the large intestine to detect pre-cancerous growths. A colonoscopy usually is performed if someone is at high risk of colon cancer or after simpler tests have found symptoms such as bleeding.

"The passion that Katie Couric brings to this issue is extraordinary," said Jay Krakovitz, Mid-Atlantic regional medical director of Aetna U.S. Healthcare, which is helping to support a research foundation cofounded by Couric.

"Her audience has a trust in her that probably mirrors the trust they have with their personal physician."

Ever since baseball player Lou Gehrig (1903-41), celebrities have helped illuminate diseases or social issues that have affected them, either by active advocacy or simply by being associated with them.

Despite himself, former football player O.J. Simpson drew attention and financial support to the fight against domestic abuse in 1994. Baseball star Pete Rose did the same for compulsive gambling. Singer Karen Carpenter, who died in 1983 without ever acknowledging her condition, made anorexia nervosa a national topic.

Through the years, others have taken more active roles bringing unmentionable diseases out of the closet. Happy Rockefeller, wife of then Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, did it for breast cancer. Actor Rock Hudson, tennis player Arthur Ashe and basketball player Magic Johnson did it for AIDS.

Recently, actor Michael J. Fox acknowledged having Parkinson's disease and talk-show host Montel Williams said he has multiple sclerosis.

In 1996, junk-bond king Michael Milken and war hero Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf caused a flurry when they went on Larry King Live to talk about having prostate cancer.

"There was a lot of gift activity because of that," said Krista Mattox, associate executive vice president of development at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. "It can be very beneficial to the advance of research whenever any public figure with a personal connection comes forward, because it does help to bring in dollars."

It can also bring in patients, which is the primary stated goal of the Today series.

That can be done by less-organized publicity campaigns, too.

"When attention is given to a celebrity, regardless of whatever field they may be in, there is definitely increased interest in that particular disease or disorder," said Anil Rustgi, chief of gastroenterology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan brought colon cancer to the national spotlight when he was diagnosed with it.

"Even without fanfare from him, there was attention given to it," Rustgi said. "More information became available, and we noticed an increase in patient inquiries and people asking for examinations."

The same thing happened in Philadelphia in 1998 when baseball player Darryl Strawberry went public with his disease, even though he was a New York Yankee, Rustgi said.

Jonathan Storm's e-mail address is jstorm@phillynews.com

* For more information about colorectal cancer, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or log onto www.cancer.org

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