The news came out of nowhere for Hoda Kotb. The co-host of NBC’s Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2007.
MyHometownHealth recently talked to the Daytime Emmy Award winner about her long journey to recovery and the life lessons she’s learned along the way.
How did you learn you had breast cancer?
During a routine exam by my gynecologist, lumps were discovered in my breast.
What was your reaction to your diagnosis?
It came as a complete surprise. I had always tried to eat a healthy diet and exercise. I was 43 years old at the time, but had yet to have my first mammogram. I knew I needed to have one. After all, I was hosting a syndicated show for NBC called Your Total Health. I had talked to so many women who had put off having a mammogram, and here I was doing exactly the same thing.
What treatment did you receive?
I decided to have a mastectomy. The surgery took eight hours. People told me I would feel like I had been hit by a Mack truck afterwards, and they were right. But I was so blessed to have the love and support of my family, friends and colleagues. When I came out of surgery, my room was full of flowers. My brother and sisters were there. I got calls from Matt (Laurie) and Ann (Curry), and Al (Roker) came to see me.
The healing after the surgery was difficult. I was taking Tamoxifen, a drug that limits the production of estrogen, which can cause tumors. One of the side effects is having night sweats. Through it all, my sister Hala has been a lifesaver, and my mother has been wonderful. And I’ve been so fortunate to have friends who have picked me up and made me laugh even when I felt like dying.
Why did you decide to go public with your condition?
I was sitting next to a man during a long plane ride. He asked me why I was wearing a compression sleeve (used to guard against swelling after the mastectomy) and I told him about my breast cancer. I also said that I was concerned that I might get labeled as “the girl with cancer.” What he said next really inspired me. “Don’t hog your journey,” he said. “It’s not just for you. Think of all the people you can help.” Ever since he gave me that advice, I’ve been inspired to help women and participate in breast cancer awareness events.
What are the lessons you’ve learned from this experience?
Surviving breast cancer has been a life-changing experience. The lesson I’ve learned comes down to four words: You can’t scare me. Thanks to cancer, I found a new strength I didn’t know was there. And I’ve been privileged to meet so many other breast cancer survivors who found that same strength to keep on fighting and overcome incredible odds.
Can you give us an example of how this new sense of strength has changed your life?
At the time I was diagnosed, I was working as a correspondent for Dateline NBC. After the surgery, I had a new clarity about what I wanted to achieve with my career. I felt more comfortable in my own skin than I had ever felt before and was inspired by a new sense of courage. So I went to the executives at NBC and told them I wanted to host the fourth hour of Today. Before cancer, I didn’t think I had the confidence to fight for that position. Now I’m living my dream job every morning with Kathie Lee. In a way, you could say that, in part, I owe my job to cancer.
Any final thoughts?
There’s nothing I want to do more now than to help women who are going through what I’ve been through. It’s a tough experience. But somewhere deep, deep inside every woman, there’s a place where we can find the strength to stand up. If you can find that place, suddenly you are empowered. You know that life is to be valued and not wasted. You know that life is an incredible gift.