Breast cancer: it has shaped me; it doesn’t define me

Hoda Kotb will be known to many in Cayman as the co-anchor of the final hour of NBC’s The Today Show (along with Kathy Lee Gifford), as well as a correspondent for Dateline and Your Total Health. She is also a breast cancer survivor and is visiting Cayman this month to give a keynote speech at the Re/Max-sponsored Breast Cancer Gala dinner, which takes place on the 17 October at The Ritz-Carlton. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull has an exclusive interview with Hoda and finds out that surviving breast cancer changed the course of her life.

Describing herself as “pretty healthy, without being a health nut”, Hoda Kotb says she really did not expect to hear a diagnosis of cancer when she followed up the discovery of a tiny lump in her breast during a routine examination in 2007.
“I was actually sitting in my office chatting with a couple of young interns when the phone rang and I saw ‘Mount Sinai’ (the hospital where she had undergone a biopsy) flash on the telephone screen,” she confirms. “The interns asked if they should leave but I told them to stay as the doctors would only be confirming that everything was fine.” Hoda had no previous history of breast cancer within her family, exercised regularly and led what she considered to be a healthy life, yet the doctor had ominous words for her.
“I just remember them saying ‘It’s not good news for you’” she recalls. “From that moment on it was a bleary-eyed sprint around various doctors to figure out how to deal with the cancer, while people spoke about me as if I wasn’t even present.”
Hoda says it was decided that a mastectomy was needed, and confirms it was a scary time for her, particularly as she had not ever had surgery up until that point and her operation was major, an eight hour marathon.
Hoda had been a presenter on Your Total Health when the cancer was diagnosed and had created a video diary of her experiences with breast cancer. “It was a good way of making sense of the weirdness happening in my life without burdening anyone,” she says.
Understanding the difficulty Hoda was facing in deciding what to do with her video diary, the executive producer of Your Total Health suggested that Hoda had a couple of options: either put the video tapes in a drawer and forget about them or perhaps use them as part of the programme at some point.
While Hoda was attempting to come to a decision on what to do she recalls taking her first steps of exercise after surgery in Central Park.
“I remember seeing floods of people running and getting a little frustrated because I couldn’t cross the area where I was walking for the human tide.
Then I noticed the colour of their shirts (pink) and I read on the runners’ shirts “I’m running for…” and the name of the person for whom they were running. Of course I appreciated then that this was a charity run for cancer and I realised that I was literally and figuratively standing on the sidelines, waiting to act. I waited until every single runner had completed the course, cheering them along. It was a life-changing moment.”
A second life-changing moment took place on board a plane shortly afterwards.
Hoda recalls: “I had just been filming in Ireland ‘Where in the world is Matt Lauer?’ for NBC a couple of weeks later and was feeling pretty awful on the flight home. A guy next to me began a conversation and I was literally seconds away from putting my Ipod on, as I really wasn’t in the mood to chat.”
Instead, she decided to engage in conversation and the man next to her started to make immense sense to her. After considerable probing on his part, she finally admitted to having had breast cancer, not a subject she had particularly wanted to discuss with a complete stranger. His advice startled her.
“I told him that breast cancer had shaped me but it did not define me. He said to me: “Don’t hog the journey; it’s not just for you!”” she recalls.
From that moment on Hoda gained the strength to unlock the video tapes of her cancer journey and permit them to be aired for others to gain strength.
“It was a hard thing to do,” Hoda says, “and in the beginning I felt like I was tiptoeing in at the deep end just praying for it all to be over. However, the feedback has been amazing and although viewers say they drew support from the programme, I also gained tremendous strength from reading the letters from viewers who had undergone similar journeys.”
Hoda also says that experiencing cancer has had a profound effect on her overall attitude to life, both professionally and personally.
“People say that tragedy has brought them a gift, which had to me always sounded a bit crazy, yet it really was true,” she confirms. “I had always been one of those individuals who believed that if you worked hard and were good at your job you would be noticed. Having survived cancer gave me an inner strength to take a big step forward professionally because I felt that no-one could scare me.”

Newly empowered with this sense of invincibility in mind, Hoda made a bold appointment with the CEO of NBC Universal and requested she be considered for the co-anchor position on the last hour of The Today Show, a hugely popular television programme in the States. “The position was a rare one as it was newly created. Usually such positions are held on to with white knuckles!” she laughs.
Her fearlessness helped her win the position and Hoda says from then on she decided to continue to make positive changes in her life.
”I realised that life was far too short to waste time with those who were simply a drain on my life, so I took charge personally as well as professionally. Surviving cancer provided me with an epiphany that galvanised me into changing my life for the better.”

Don’t miss Hoda’s keynote speech at the Breast Cancer Gala dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on 17 October.  
For tickets go to Re/Max in Seven Mile shops or call 949 4822.


Hoda Kotb