Outsmart Colorectal Cancer With This Life-Saving Advice From Katie Couric

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Katie Couric at the March 24 screening of the PBS documentary series “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” in New York City. (Photo: Invision/AP Images Jason DeCrow)

In honor of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Yahoo Health spoke with Katie Couric about her advocacy work and the steps you can take to stay healthy.

Yahoo Health: You’ve lost loved ones, including your husband and sister, to cancer. When friends, neighbors, or co-workers want to help but aren’t sure how, what advice would you give them? What did people do to help you and your family?

Katie Couric: People often feel they don’t want to invade a family’s privacy, but reaching out in some way is often so appreciated.

It can help to offer to do something specific. Rather than saying, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do,” say, “Can I make you and your family dinner on Sunday?” or “Can I help you get to your next appointment?” The worst that could happen is the person could say no, and the mere gesture means so much.

It’s also so important just to stay in touch. When Jay was diagnosed, I remember a friend of mine wrote me a card every week. I was completely immersed in trying to navigate my husband’s care and taking care of my girls, but I was so grateful that she kept trying.

Considering that colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined, we clearly need to be talking about it more. Why aren’t we? Is it squeamishness? And if so, how can we get over it?

I think we’ve brought colon cancer out of the closet in recent years, thanks to a lot of celebrities and people like me (the official colonoscopy-nagging fishwife) who won’t stop talking about it — especially in March, which is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

It’s interesting, breast cancer used to be something that was talked about in hushed tones, and now it’s part of the lexicon. While colon cancer hasn’t gotten there just yet, it should. After all, everyone has a colon, it’s an important part of your anatomy, and colon cancer affects men and women in similar numbers. Just understanding the basics of the disease and the ways it can be prevented is so important. Knowledge equals understanding, and understanding leads to action. I’ve seen that action save lives again and again. That’s why I continue to be a pain in the you-know-what when it comes to screening.

Related: Scary Study: Most Of Us Don’t Recognize Common Cancer Symptoms

Yes, you’re a fierce advocate of screenings! Should most of us really wait until age 50 to be tested?

You really always want to talk to your doctor about when you should start getting screened and how often you should get tested, because while it’s recommended for everyone over 50 to get screened, it can be different depending on your individual situation. I think it’s important to point out that more than 13,000 people under the age of 50 are diagnosed with colon cancer every year, and the incidence of young-onset colon cancer is increasing. That may not call for uniform testing starting at 40, but no one wants to be a part of that statistic, so it’s important to be vigilant about yearly check-ups and talking to your doctor if you’re experiencing any symptoms. 

As a general rule, if you (or a close family member) have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer, have inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, you might need to be tested earlier. There are also some genetic conditions that might be a reason to get tested earlier than age 50.

What is the screening process like?

There are a couple of different tests to screen for polyps and colorectal cancer, but the one you probably hear about the most is colonoscopy.  I consider colonoscopy the “gold standard” because it examines the whole length of the colon, and because it can find both cancer and precancerous polyps, which can be removed during the procedure. I don’t know if you remember, but I got a colonoscopy on-air while I was at Today; I wanted people to understand what the prep process is like and what actually happens during the procedure — and that none of it is that bad. It’s not like I look forward to it, but it’s so important!  As Sharon Rockefeller (the president of WETA, the Washington, D.C., PBS station, and a colon cancer survivor) says, a colonoscopy is a picnic compared to getting full-blown colon cancer. So true!

Do the first signs of colorectal cancer present differently in men and women?

Actually, the first thing to remember is that colon cancer often grows in your body without any symptoms. That’s why screening is so important even when you feel well. Having said that, there are definitely things you should be on the lookout for, and these are the same for women and men: a change in the shape and color of your stools (blood in your stools often makes them look darker, and you don’t always see blood itself in the toilet bowl) or in your bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, and stomach pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away. You should talk to your doctor about these symptoms and even inquire about the possibility of colon cancer. I’ve heard tragic stories of doctors dismissing patients with symptoms and attributing them to hemorrhoids. So be your own best advocate, and if you’re not satisfied, seek a second opinion.  

It’s also important to know your family history. I would say even a generation or two ago, people sometimes died of cancer, and it wouldn’t be clear where the primary tumor was. So try to find out, because a family history does increase your risk and means you need to be particularly vigilant. If you have a close family member who had colon cancer or polyps, you should start getting screened 10 years earlier than the age at which that relative was diagnosed. But… 80 to 85 percent of all colon cancer cases have no family history. Our family history, sadly, started with Jay.  

One more thing: Jay’s mom died of ovarian cancer, and his grandmother had breast cancer. Some experts believe if you have a relative with those cancers, you may be at greater risk of a colon cancer diagnosis.  

Colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable. What are some life style changes people can make to lower their risk?

People say it all the time because it’s true: A healthy lifestyle is really important. Get up and move around, try to eat healthy, and don’t smoke. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. These are things you should be doing for your overall health, because it could help prevent all kinds of diseases, not just cancer.

Related: 17 Red-Flag Signs of Cancer

I understand you’re involved in the 80% by 2018 initiative to improve colorectal cancer screening rates. Can you tell us more about that effort?

Nationally, about 65 percent of age-appropriate adults have been screened according to federal guidelines. While that’s a marked improvement over previous decades, it still means that roughly one in three adults who should get screened has not been. The goal of this initiative is to raise the national screening rate for age-appropriate adults to 80 percent by 2018, with a focus on helping navigate financial barriers and improving access to screening for the uninsured and medically underserved populations.

Getting the word out about federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) that may offer low- or no-cost screening is one way to increase screening access for underserved communities. States can also apply for funding for screening programs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-five states already have CDC-funded screening programs in place.

New York City’s Make That Call local awareness effort has done an impressive job increasing screening across the five boroughs, as well as reducing disparities in screening rates between different groups. I’m sure many lives have been saved as a result. If the 80 by 2018 effort achieves its goal of raising the national rate to 80 percent, that would translate to over 200,000 lives saved.

As a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, you must encounter incredible stories. Can you share one or two that have moved or inspired you?

So many of the stories I hear are from people who stop me on the street, in the grocery store, walking in the park. Just recently when I was at the gym, a man came up to me and said he’d always wanted to meet me — he’d had a colonoscopy because of me and he believes it saved his life. People have told me that watching me go through my situation publicly helped with their loss. I’m extremely moved when people share their stories. It always makes me sad but grateful that I could somehow inspire people to keep going. Everything about cancer is scary, and if I can provide any sort of comfort, I hope to do that.

There are also some incredibly hopeful stories about the strides today’s cancer researchers are making, the patients they’re helping, and the revolutionary new treatments on the horizon that everyone can see in the upcoming PBS documentary series, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” executive-produced by Ken Burns. It’s airing in three parts this coming Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (March 30, 31, and April 1), and I hope everyone reading this will tune in.

Check out Katie’s interview with Ken Burns and Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, to discuss the story behind: Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

For more information on colon cancer screening, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, and Stand Up 2 Cancer.

Related: What The Big ‘C’ Taught Me: Don’t Give In To Fear