The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine honored television host Katie Couric on Saturday for her work campaigning on behalf of cancer researchers after losing her husband to the disease 15 years ago.
"My life changed in an instant," Couric said as she recalled rushing to meet Jay Monahan at her doctor's office and learning that he had a tumor in his colon that had swelled to the "size of an orange."
Worse, she learned that there were few good treatment options for that type of cancer, and the ones that were available had remained largely unchanged since the 1950s. Couric began to try to educate the public and support cancer researchers and has founded two related charities.
Couric accepted the award for her work over breakfast in a packed ballroom at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel at the beginning of a day-long event designed to educate women about their health. The gathering, called A Woman's Journey, was started in the mid-1990s by two cancer survivors and brings together Hopkins faculty and about 1,000 participants each year.
For her part, Couric's cancer activism has blended mass appeals and collaboration with researchers working at the edge of current medical knowledge and treatment.
While a host on NBC's "Today" show, Couric famously underwent an on-air colonoscopy, a probe that is effective at diagnosing colon cancer early in its development. She said Saturday that her hope was to "destigmatize" the procedure.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that her campaign appeared to have been a success, measuring a 20 percent rise in screenings that they dubbed the "Couric effect."
"I started getting flowers from gastroenterologists," she said. "I'm kidding, but I should have."
The filming of Couric's colonoscopy spawned a number of copycats, a trend that continued this month with "Today's" Matt Lauer and Al Roker having their prostates examined live. And Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert parodied the segment in a spot featuring Couric.
In addition to staging attention-grabbing TV segments, Couric worked to spur the efforts of cancer researchers. On Saturday, she praised the work of Hopkins doctors Dr. William Nelson, Dr. Stephen Baylin, and Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who have worked with her initiatives.
"They are really my personal heroes," she said.
More recently, Couric founded another group designed to assemble "dream teams" of doctors with the aim of quickly developing new therapies.
Couric called the progress made since her husband's death "breathtaking" but cautioned that screening rates for colon cancer have leveled off, and warned of future threats to funding for research.
In particular, Couric singled out the cuts in funding to the National Institutes of Health enacted as part of the sequester and said that the government shutdown had also harmed research. Johns Hopkins itself has lost financial support for some of its activities, she added.
"I urge you to look up your senators' and representatives' stance on biomedical research funding and let them know that additional cuts are not OK," Couric told the crowd. "We have to continue fighting the good fight."