““Please get your annual mammogram. I was six months late this time. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had put it off longer.” ”
— Katie Couric
That was Katie Couric, who revealed Wednesday that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June.
“I wanted to share my personal story with you all and encourage you to get screened and understand that you may fall into a category of women who needs more than a mammogram,” she wrote in an Instagram post. She also shared her diagnosis on Twitter.
The former “Today” and “CBS Evening News” anchor went into more detail in a personal essay posted to her website, which was titled “Why NOT Me?” Couric, 65, has been an advocate for cancer awareness ever since her first husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 at just 42 years old. Her sister passed from pancreatic cancer at age 54, as well. And her parents are both cancer survivors.
But even though Couric’s family history of cancer has kept her vigilant about her health, she notes in her essay that she still fell behind on her annual mammograms — aka, getting X-rays to screen breasts for early signs of cancer — during the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 45 to 54 with an average risk of breast cancer get a mammogram every year; those at higher risk should start screening in their 30s. Women ages 55 and up who are in good health, and who don’t have higher risk factors (like a family history of breast cancer) can switch to getting mammograms every other year.
But the first line of Couric’s essay recounts her gynecologist telling her this past summer that, “You’re due for a mammogram,” and surprising the former news anchor by telling her that she hadn’t been screened since December 2020, and so was six months overdue.
“Wait, what? How could that be? Had the pandemic given me a skewed sense of time? Had it messed with my memory?” writes Couric.
If so, she is not alone. Public health advocates have been warning for the past two years that many Americans have been missing routine medical screenings and vaccines during the pandemic. Two 2021 analyses by Urban Institute researchers found that about 36% of U.S. adults had chosen to delay or go without medical treatment due to fears of being exposed to COVID-19, and 41% of people already diagnosed with chronic health conditions did the same.
In fact, research from the American Cancer Society published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last June — coincidentally, when Couric was diagnosed — found that cancer screenings plummeted 80% at the beginning of the pandemic in March and April 2020. And while the number of people getting checked rebounded somewhat later in 2020, millions still skipped these early screenings, which are the best way to catch cancer early and while it is more easily treatable, if not curable. In fact, more than 2 million fewer women reported screening for breast cancer in 2020 compared with 2018 (a 6% decrease), the American Cancer Society found, and the number of women screening for cervical cancer dropped 11% in 2020. Previous research also warned that mammograms and colonoscopies fell by up to 70% in the early months of COVID-19.
““To reap the benefits of modern medicine, we need to stay on top of our screenings, advocate for ourselves, and make sure everyone has access to the diagnostic tools that could very well save their life.””
— Katie Couric
So Couric got her belated mammogram in June, about six months later than she says she should have been checked. And the screening and subsequent biopsy found a 2.5-centimeter tumor. Luckily, her stage 1A breast cancer was caught early enough to undergo surgery to remove the tumor in July, followed by radiation treatments that began in September, and she doesn’t need to undergo chemotherapy.
“Throughout the process, I kept thinking about two things: How lucky I was to have access to such incredible care, since so many people don’t,” Couric wrote. “And how lucky I was to be the beneficiary of such amazing technology.”
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in American women (second to skin cancer), and Couric is just one of about 287,850 new cases expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society. What’s more, about 43,250 women will die from breast cancer this year.
Cancer can also take a huge financial toll — even for patients fortunate enough to have health insurance. About one in four American cancer survivors have had to borrow money, go into debt or file for bankruptcy to cover their medical expenses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2019. The annualized medical costs associated with breast cancer are about $34,000 in the first year after diagnosis, as Robin Yabroff, the senior scientific director of health services research at the American Cancer Society, previously told MarketWatch.
That doesn’t even factor in lost productivity at work, or the hit that cancer can take on many survivors’ careers. More than half (58%) of the survivors surveyed in a 2019 Colorado Cancer Center study said that their cancer or its treatment interfered with the physical demands of their job, and 54% said that it hurt their ability to complete mental tasks at work. The Pink Fund, a non-profit breast cancer organization, reports that between 20% to 30% of women will lose their jobs or are unable to work due to a disability stemming from their breast cancer treatment.
So Couric concludes in her essay that she’s sharing her personal experience and diagnosis to encourage more women to get screened and catch any potential cancers early, which is especially timely considering October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Why am I telling you all this? Well, since I’m the ‘Screen Queen’ of colon cancer, it seemed odd to not use this as another teachable moment that could save someone’s life,” writes Couric. And she adds that, “to reap the benefits of modern medicine, we need to stay on top of our screenings, advocate for ourselves, and make sure everyone has access to the diagnostic tools that could very well save their life.”