Breast Cancer Survivor Hoda Kotb

Breast Cancer Survivor Hoda Kotb Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire

‘You can’t scare me.’

by Laura Shipp

“You can’t scare me.”  That’s the powerful mantra Hoda Kotb took on after beating breast cancer.  It may have even helped the Dateline correspondent land her current gig as cohost of the fourth hour of NBC’s Today, alongside Kathie Lee Gifford. 

“Those four words can work wonders for you,” Hoda reveals in an interview for Coping® magazine, letting me in on her hard-knock secret.  “At the time I finished my surgery [for breast cancer], NBC was starting up the fourth hour of Today.  And I did something I never dreamt I would ever do – go to the big boss and ask for the job.  I’m one of those people who wait to be noticed.  But for the first time in my life, I hit 52 in the elevator bank and went up to see Jeff Zucker [who was CEO of NBC Universal at the time].  Without cancer, I don’t think I’d be sitting next to Kathie Lee Gifford right now, because I wouldn’t have had the guts or the moxie.”

To understand how Hoda came about her newfound fearlessness, we have to go back to 2007.  In her memoir, Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee, Hoda refers to 2007 as “the year my body and my heart broke at the same time.”  Within the same week, Hoda was knocked not just one, but two, devastating blows – a breast cancer diagnosis and the end of her marriage.  

Cancer is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.  It did shape me, but it doesn’t define me.

Hoda Kotb cancer
Photo by Julie Dennis

Always the optimist, Hoda managed to find the silver lining amidst her personal storm.  “I think you have a finite amount of grief to go around,” she says.  “It’s like having two kids instead of one.  You can’t worry about the one who’s coloring on the wall with the crayons because the other one is trying to swallow one of your Advils.  In a weird way, having those twin tragedies forced me to keep my head above water.”

Hoda underwent a mastectomy in March, coupled with immediate TRAM flap reconstruction – a grueling eight-hour surgery.  Since the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, she decided against additional treatment. Instead, she keeps regular follow-up appointments with her physician to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.

Regarding her decision to forgo adjuvant therapy, Hoda says, “At the end of the day, when you make whatever choice you make, you have to be able to put your head on the pillow and sleep.  Everyone has to make their own decision, but I’m comfortable with mine.”

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Hoda’s next hurdle was deciding whether to speak publicly about her diagnosis.  “The idea about going public was a tricky decision,” Hoda says, “because cancer is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.  It did shape me, but it doesn’t define me.”

Hoda ultimately decided to share her breast cancer experience with Today show viewers that October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, fittingly.  Although she admits that she sometimes wonders what her life would be like if her cancer was still a secret, in the end, she says, “I would choose the path I took a million times over.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that talking about something as personal as breast cancer on national TV came easy.  As a journalist, she’s long been at ease asking the tough questions, but when she sat down with Ann Curry to discuss her own cancer, Hoda admits that it was a little bit terrifying to be on the other side of the interview.  

“It really did change my perspective on what I do for a living, because it’s a very vulnerable spot to be in,” she says.  “I’ve always known that, but I don’t think I realized the extent of it until I was actually sitting in the other chair.” 

Four years later, she’s still at home in her Today show anchor chair – right next to Kathie Lee – with a new perspective, a fearless attitude, and a cancer-free left breast.  “I used to wake up and think of myself as someone with cancer,” Hoda says, “and now, now I just wake up.”

Hoda Kotb Cover

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.