Hoda Kotb might not be coming to Augusta this week if not for a nosy guy named Ken.
In 2007, she was flying back from Ireland after an assignment for the Today show, where she is co-host of the program’s fourth hour. She was still recovering from breast cancer surgery months earlier and was determined to put it behind her, unwilling to be defined by it. Sitting next to her, Ken persisted in asking why she was wearing a compression bandage on her arm, to control swelling from the surgery, when she finally admitted she was recovering from breast cancer.
“He said, ‘Breast cancer is a part of you. It’s like going to college or getting married or working at NBC,’ ” Kotb said. “He said, ‘Don’t hog your journey. It’s not just for you.’
“He said, ‘You know you can put your stuff deep in your pockets and take it to your grave or you can help somebody.’ It was just crystal clear to me. I’m sobbing sitting next to this guy I don’t even know because I know my life is about to change.’ ”
Kotb will be the headliner Friday for The Augusta Chronicle’s We Think Pink Dinner at the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center. A silent auction begins at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m.
The diagnosis of breast cancer in February 2007 came out of nowhere for Kotb. Always active and eating right, at age 43 with no family history, it wasn’t something she thought about even after her doctor found a lump and asked her to get it checked.
“Why would it be me?” she thought. The phone call that came later had a simple and devastating message.
“Not good news for you,” she was told.
“And it is funny because you really don’t think it is going to wind up being you until it is,” Kotb said. “Until your life is perfect on Monday and on Tuesday it is kind of in shambles. And you can’t believe that can happen in 24 hours. You can go from bliss to being really petrified in that short of a period of time.”
After her mastectomy, she began taking Tamoxifen as a chemoprevention and, after that plane trip, decided to let herself be the subject of a story for Breast Cancer Awareness Month that October. She remembers feeling “naked” and “vulnerable” as she faced Today colleague Ann Curry. And it reinforced a lesson she always tried to remember when interviewing people.
“It just reminded me that for each person we talk to, and I try to do this, you really have to hold their heart gently because it is a difficult thing to do,” Kotb said.
She has written about her experiences in a book, Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and Kathie Lee. But she was reminded in a recent appearance about the part of cancer that stays with her. A woman stood up to speak and broke down sobbing as she tried to talk about her own breast cancer.
“I just looked at her and I remembered that feeling like just feeling lost. And you need somebody,” Kotb said. “I didn’t know her name but I knew her. I didn’t know anything about her but I knew everything about her. It was that feeling and I think that doesn’t ever go away.”