Paula Zahn - CNN Anchor and Cancer Advocate
by Julie McKenna
Paula Zahn has been the anchor of CNN’s weeknight prime-time program, Paula Zahn Now, and the host of People in the News, CNN’s feature-format program with People magazine. In addition to being one of the most prominent journalists in the media today, Paula is also a cancer advocate, addressing the financial, physical and emotional issues faced by cancer survivors and their families.
For Paula, the decision to become a cancer advocate was inspired nearly twenty years ago when cancer hit close to home. “Both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within a relatively short period of time. My father was diagnosed with lymphoma and just several months later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” recalls Paula. “I remember the sense of helplessness that I felt, not knowing exactly how to help them navigate that very treacherous slope.” In addition to Paula’s parents having cancer, all of her grandparents had cancer, and most recently she lost her sister-in-law to cancer.
When Paula’s parents were diagnosed with cancer, she was just starting her career at a TV station in Houston where she had coincidentally begun working on a cancer-related project. “Our local station went into partnership with some hospitals and a chain of drug stores to do a month-long special on colorectal cancer,” Paula remembers. Providing knowledge and awareness to the community was a way for her to help others manage the uncertainty and trepidation she and her family were experiencing first-hand.
“I think I have been the single most annoying presence in assignment editors’ lives over the last two decades.”
Paula’s career took her from the station in Houston to other local stations across the country before she joined ABC in 1987. She co-anchored World News This Morning and the news segments of Good Morning America on ABC, where she also served as anchor of The Health Show. She then joined CBS in 1989 where she spent 10 years co-hosting CBS This Morning and anchoring CBS Evening News Saturday Edition. In 1999 she joined the Fox News Channel where she anchored The Fox Report and hosted The Edge with Paula Zahn. She joined CNN in the fall of 2001 where, on her first day with the network, she covered the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Throughout her career as a news anchor, Paula has been able to use her influence as a journalist to spread knowledge and awareness about cancer-related issues – even if it is to the frustration of her co-workers. “I think I have been the single most annoying presence in assignment editors’ lives over the last two decades,” Paula jokes. “I am the one who, almost on a daily basis, will be lobbying for stories on PSA screening tests, mammograms, and I can always hear the chorus of ‘we’ve already done that’ coming at me. That may be true, but each time we do this we’re going to reach someone new in the audience.”
Equally important to the work Paula does on television is the work she does on a personal level. Paula has been a member of C-Change, an organization working to eradicate cancer, for over seven years. She is also a frequent participant in cancer walks and recently wrote a piece for Harper’s Bazaar to help women understand breast cancer treatment options. “There’s nothing more rewarding than speaking out because your voice will be heard,” says Paula. “I think each and every one of us can make a difference in this battle. It’s important for all of us to remind the folks who govern our country that this is important to us.”
Paula continues, “In a personal sense I will tell you that it is a privilege to do what I get to do every night of the week. But along with that privilege comes a responsibility to inform the public. I have tremendous access and I am delighted that I have been able to use some of those contacts to get information on the air that ultimately might save lives. That’s a good feeling.”
While there is still much to be done in the fields of cancer prevention and treatment, Paula recognizes the achievements that have been made by healthcare professionals and cancer advocates. “The one thing we can’t lose site of is the tremendous strides that have been made in the fight against cancer,” Paula notes. “If my father was diagnosed today with exactly what he was diagnosed with 20 years ago, he’d still be alive. That’s how far the drugs have come and the understanding of cancer has come. So when I think about the accomplishments that so many people have made, I realize that all of us can make a difference,” Paula observes. “Each and every one of us can speak up and have an impact in our own way.”
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2004.