Katie Couric on how losing her husband to cancer emboldened her to take action (Exclusive)

When Katie Couric's late husband, Jay Monahan, was battling colon cancer, the veteran journalist was forced to take a crash course in science and medicine. She was the one tasked with understanding the different treatment options, and she used her skills as a self-described "communicator" in order to make educated decisions about her husband's health crisis.

"I had to be like, 'Okay, wait, what is targeted therapy? How does it work? How does chemotherapy work? What about radiation?'" she exclusively told AOL during a recent sit-down interview. "I had to learn all of this stuff and translate it to my husband’s life, but my whole career I’ve spent taking complicated issues and making them understandable and digestible."

Since losing her husband to cancer in 1998, Couric has made it one of her life's missions to raise money for cancer research and education, founding Stand Up To Cancer, the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance and the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health.

Now, Couric has broadened her scope and, in partnership with 3M, is encouraging the public to pay more attention to science as a whole. The organization recently released the findings of its second annual global State of Science Index, which found that skepticism around science has gone up 3 percent globally and a whopping 6 percent in the United States.

"In some cases, science has become politicized, and it shouldn’t be. It should really be above politics, and science is actually a very unifying thing," Couric told AOL. "Science can solve some of these big, thorny issues and it really should be above politics. But, unfortunately, it has been politicized. What’s very encouraging is to see young people demand that it not be and that it be taken seriously."

For more from Katie Couric, check out our full conversation below, where we discuss losing her husband to cancer, how the tragedy inspired her to take action and inspire others and the ways in which science has changed her perception on a variety of important topics, like childhood obesity.

You're helping to spread awareness about the findings of 3M's second annual State of Science Index, and you have a clear passion for science. Where did that passion originate for you?

It wasn’t as a child. I was sort of your classic, "I’m a girl and I’m not good at science," person. Mrs. Pollen’s science class in eighth grade, I think I got a bad grade and got kicked off the cheerleading squad temporarily -- or was that for smoking in the bathroom? I can’t really remember. [Laughs] I really didn’t excel in science as a kid, but unfortunately a tragedy ignited my passion for science. When my husband [Jay Monahan] was diagnosed with cancer, I had to take a crash course in medicine and in cancer research. Through that experience and through my colon cancer advocacy work and starting Stand Up To Cancer, I began to spend a lot of time with cancer scientists and my respect and appreciation for them was really profound. Because of that, I realized that we all really are so dependent on science to lead longer, happier lives, to breathe cleaner air, to drink cleaner water and to keep the planet sound and healthy. We rely on science for all kinds of things, even now in our daily lives. When I heard that 3M was embarking on this State of Science Index and measuring how people feel globally about science and how much they trust it and how much they believe in it, I was really excited to bring attention to it.

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Katie Couric and Jay Monahan together
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Katie Couric and Jay Monahan together
Katie Couric and husband Jay Monahan (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Katie Couric and husband Jay Monahan during Premiere of 'The Nutcracker' - November 21, 1993 in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Katie Couric and husband Jay Monahan during American Way 10th 'Spirit Of Liberty' Award Honors Charles Kuralt in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
TV anchorwoman Katie Couric arm-in-arm w. atty. husband Jay Monahan. (Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Katie Couric, husband Jay Monahan and daughter Elinor Monahan (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NBC's the Today show co-host Katie Couric at home with her husband, MSNBC legal analyst Jay Monahan. (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images)
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We really do rely on it in a lot of ways that most people probably don’t even think about. We have a passive relationship to science. Was part of the reason you're raising awareness about the findings of 3M's survey to fight against that?

As you know, the media landscape is very crowded and very cluttered, and sometimes we don’t step away and look at the big picture. We obsess over minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day events, and sometimes we just have to stop for a second and look at these overarching issues that really have a huge impact on the way we live. I’ve always been interested in doing that -- connecting the dots and looking at the big picture -- so this is a way for me to say, "Hey everybody, this is the state of science and how people feel about it and these are some warning signs and ways we can close the gap and fix things."

It's also so important that these messages are coming from someone like you, who a lot of Americans trust with disseminating important information.

I had to do that with Jay’s cancer diagnosis. I had to be like, "Okay, wait, what is targeted therapy? How does it work? How does chemotherapy work? What about radiation?" I had to learn all of this stuff and translate it to my husband’s life, but my whole career I’ve spent taking complicated issues and making them understandable and digestible. I do think I bring certain skills as a communicator that I think scientists could use more of. That’s one of the things that the survey found, is that we need to help scientists do a better job of making their work understandable and not daunting or intimidating for the layperson. If it’s on a certain level, it’s very alienating for people that don’t have that expertise. Somehow, we have to bridge that gap, which is what I’ve done my entire career.

One of the more interesting findings was that skepticism about science has increased globally by 3 percent, but the increase is double that -- 6 percent -- in America. Is that a political thing? A religious thing?

In some cases, science has become politicized, and it shouldn’t be. It should really be above politics, and science is actually a very unifying thing. I think about cancer: It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, Red State or Green State, conservative or liberal; everybody wants better treatments for cancer, and everyone wants the people they love to survive. So, I think science can solve some of these big, thorny issues and it really should be above politics. But, unfortunately, it has been politicized. What’s very encouraging is to see young people demand that it not be and that it be taken seriously.

You've talked about how better education in the sciences is an important tool in reversing some of these trends, but what are some other things that need to change?

We have to broaden the playing field for people to get involved in STEM, because the number of girls and people of color has declined who are going into STEM. We need all people to go into STEM, but especially those who are underrepresented. We also need to rebrand science and make sure it’s inclusive and stop those associations with gender and race that we seem to form from a very early age about who can do what in society, and you don’t even realize how many messages you get reenforcing a certain stereotype from a very, very early age. We have to stop those associations from happening, because our brains are actually hardwired to make these connections that are the result of visual and behavioral cues. We have to be extremely mindful of that, because what it does is it cuts off people from certain possibilities, and we just can’t afford to do that.

People assume that there’s no room for them or that the space is already too crowded.

Right, or that it’s not for them or they don’t see people like them in those fields. That’s another thing, when you Google "science" or "doctors," men in white jackets come up, you know? That’s why it’s super important to tell stories of people who are doing great things in STEM who aren’t necessarily the typical person you think of when you think of a career in science. I think we’re seeing that and that the world is changing. I think we’re at this real inflection point where people are realizing that words, images and stories we tell matter. The people we work with matter, and I feel a real sea change and that people and companies are taking it very seriously.

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Katie Couric through the years
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Katie Couric through the years
UNITED STATES - MARCH 18: Katie Couric (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Pictured: (l-r) Hosts Katie Couric, Matt Lauer during the 2000 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TODAY SHOW -- Pictured: (l-r) co-host Katie Couric, weatherman Al Roker, co-host Matt Lauer, co-host Ann Curry (Photo by NBC NewsWire/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 18: Katie Couric (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: American television journalist Katie Couric meets a Kangaroo joey during filming of the NBC Today Show overlooking Sydney Harbour on September 11, 2000 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 14: American television journalist Katie Couric hosting the NBC Today Show from Bondi Beach on September 14, 2000 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images)
381620 03: 'Today Show' co-host Katie Couric appears at FAO Schwarz November 9, 2000 to sign copies of her new children's book 'The Brand New Kid' in New York City. (Photo by George DeSota/Newsmakers)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Pictured: (l-r) Hosts Katie Couric, Matt Lauer during the 2001 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- Photo by: Eric Liebowitz/NBCU Photo Bank
Katie Couric during '42nd And Vine: Hollywood Hits Broadway' To Benefit The Entertainment Industry at Waldorf Astoria in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Katie Couric during Opening Night of Baz Luhrmann's Production of Puccini's La Boheme - Arrivals at Broadway Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Mychal Watts/WireImage)
Katie Couric (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 9: Television personality Katie Couric attends the Cynthia Steffe show during Olympus Fashion Week Spring 2005 at Bryant Park September 9, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
Katie Couric during Bryan Adams and Def Leppard Perform on the 2005 'Today' Show Summer Concert Series at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic)
Katie Couric (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
Katie Couric and Hilary Duff during Hilary Duff Performs on the 2005 'Today' Show Summer Concert Series - June 17, 2005 at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic)
Carmen Marc Valvo and Katie Couric during Katie Couric, EIF and NCCRA Present 'Hollywood Meets Motown' Benefit - Arrivals at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, New York, United States. (Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)
MARCH 15: Katie Couric attends Entertainment Industry Foundation's NCCRA colon cancer benefit at Waldorf Astoria NYC USA on March 15, 2006. (Photo by Chance Yeh /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY, NY - MAY 8: Katie Couric and Senator John McCain attend TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People 2006 at Jazz at Lincoln Center at Time Warner Center on May 8, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MAY 19: Today Show host Katie Couric appears on the NBC 'Today' show Toyota Concert Series in Rockefeller Plaza May 19, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Katie Couric during The McCarton Foundation Benefit For Autistic Children - May 22, 2006 at Pier 60 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Jason Kempin/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - MAY 26: NBC Today Show host Katie Couric looks on during NBC's Today Show on May 26, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 30: NBC's 'Today' co-anchors Katie Couric and Matt Lauer talk during Couric's last appearance on the show, Wednesday, May 31, 2006 in New York. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Katie Couric and Sheila C. Johnson during Jackie Robinson Foundation Annual Awards Dinner at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic)
CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric listens as North Carolina State Attorney General Roy Cooper announces in a press conference at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, Wednesday April 11, 2007, that after carefully reviewing the evidence, he is dropping all charges against three former Duke lacrosse players. (Photo by Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
Katie Couric during 68th Annual Overseas Press Club of America Awards Dinner Hosted By Katie Couric at Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Shane Gritzinger/FilmMagic)
Katie Couric and Larry King 13420_061.JPG (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for Turner)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 1: Katie Couric attends Launch Party for JOAN RIVERS' New TV Series HOW'D YOU GET SO RICHGuest on TVLand at Joan Rivers' Penthouse on August 1, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by JONATHON ZIEGLER/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
CBS Evening News anchor and Managing Editor Katie Couric speaks during a memorial service for CBS newsman Walter Cronkite at the Lincoln Center in New York on September 9, 2009. Walter Cronkite died on July 17, 2009 at age 92. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: ***EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE*** Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and David Westin attend the 30th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on September 21, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 01: CBS Evening News Anchor and Managing Editor, Katie Couric receives honor at the 7th annual Giants of Broadcasting Awards Ceremony at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on October 1, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
News anchor Katie Couric attends the 10th Annual New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend photocall at the Times Center on January 6, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 13: CBS News Anchor Katie Couric attends the Carmen Marc Valvo Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on February 13, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by John W. Ferguson/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 01: Katie Couric, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor attends the 'Make That Call' For Colon Cancer Screening campaign launch at the Monahan GI Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell on March 1, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 26: TV Personality Katie Couric speaks onstage at the 'Katie' Panel during day 6 of the Disney ABCTelevision Group portion of the 2012 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 26, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 04: Katie Couric attends BlogHer '12 at the Hilton New York on August 4, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
NANTUCKET, MA - AUGUST 11: Katie Couric attends the 2012 Boston Pops reception and fundraiser for Nantucket Cottage Hospital on Nantucket Island sponsored by Coastal Living on August 11, 2012 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Coastal Living Magazine)
KATIE - 9/13/12 - Brene Brown, vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston is a guest on KATIE, airing THURSDAY, SEPT. 13, distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. (Photo by Ida Mae Astute/Disney-ABC Domestic TV via Getty Images) KATIE COURIC, BRENE BROWN
KATIE - 2/18/13 - The Oscar is celebrated on KATIE, airing MONDAY, FEB. 18, distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. (Photo by Lou Rocco/Disney-ABC via Getty Images) KATIE COURIC
KATIE - 3/4/13 - Almost three months after the tragic shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Katie Couric returns to Newtown, CT, to remember those who were lost, and to host a conversation about their hope that this tragedy can inspire change, on a special episode of KATIE - 'Voices from Newtown' - airing MONDAY, MARCH 4th, distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. (Photo by Ida Mae Astute/Disney-ABC via Getty Images) KATIE COURIC
KATIE - 4/8/13 - A KATIE Exclusive: Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper & Betty White Back Together - Katie Couric visits the set of 'Hot in Cleveland' for an exclusive reunion with the cast members of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' which made TV history. KATIE airs on MONDAY, APRIL 8, distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. (Photo by Rick Rowell/ABC via Getty Images) KATIE COURIC
LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 886 -- Pictured: (l-r) Katie Couric with host Jimmy Fallon during an interview on September 06, 2013 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: 2013 US Open Champion Serena Williams of the United States poses for a photo with Television personality Katie Couric backstage during the Kelly and Michael show on her New York City Trophy Tour on September 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 05: Journalist Katie Couric attends the 4th Biennial Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), A Program of The Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), at Dolby Theatre on September 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 24: Katie Couric attends 'Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies' New York Screening at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26: TV Personality Katie Couric, wearing Etro, is seen around town at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Mark Sagliocco/GC Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26: Katie Couric is sighted during the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Mat Hayward/GC Images)
Journalist Katie Couric poses during an interview session at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 26, 2016. / AFP / Valerie MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13: Katie Couric arrives at Sean Parker And The Parker Foundation Launch The Parker Institute For Cancer Immunotherapy Gala on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Journalist Katie Couric attends Tribeca Talks After The Movie: I Voted? at SVA Theatre 2 on April 21, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 03: Katie Couric attends Tony Bennett 90th Birthday Party on August 3, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 7: Katie Couric and husband John Molner attend day 10 of the 2016 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2016 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/GC Images)
Katie Couric attends the Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) event on September 9, 2016, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. / AFP / Valerie MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02: Executive Producer Katie Couric attends 'Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric' New York Premiere at TheTimesCenter on February 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Katie Couric attends the 'Genius' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC on April 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: Katie Couric attends the National Night Of Laughter And Song event hosted by David Lynch Foundation at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on June 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for David Lynch Foundation)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 13: Katie Couric attends The 2017 Mirror Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on June 13, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 11: Katie Couric poses at the The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27: Journalist Katie Couric attends the Clive Davis and Recording Academy Pre-GRAMMY Gala and GRAMMY Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Jay-Z on January 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
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Is there an opinion or something you thought of as fact that you used to have that has been debunked by science during your career? Surely there have been tons of developments in science during your career as a journalist.

That’s a really hard question, Gibson. A fact that I believed that’s been debunked? I think that my view of cancer has changed a lot. I used to think that every cancer was different, but cancers have a lot of commonalities and now what’s super exciting for me is that treatments for, say, melanoma can also be very efficacious for childhood brain tumors. We’re just learning so much more about how cancer behaves and the cellular structure and biology of cancer and what it does. That, to me, is super exciting, because I used to have a very simplistic view of cancer, but as science is understanding how complicated it is, my perception of cancer has changed. 

I also did a documentary about childhood obesity [called "Fed Up"], and I always thought that low-fat diets were the key, but actually they’re responsible for a lot of the obesity in the country because when you take out the fat it tastes like cardboard, and so you pump in a lot of sugar. Sugar and carbohydrates are actually responsible for a lot of obesity, instead of what I thought, which was fat. One thing I think that’s important to mention is that sometimes people get confused by science, because one thing will come out one day and then something else comes out the next. But we understand science enough to understand that with new knowledge and new discoveries, sometimes opinions can change and that’s okay. We, in the media, could do a better job at explaining studies and why a study shows a certain thing instead of putting a headline for clickbait so people will click on it. That doesn’t help people understand it, and that’s something that could improve.

You mentioned Stand Up To Cancer, which you co-founded over a decade ago, back in 2008. What kind of effect have you seen from your willingness to shine a line on cancer through the organization?

It’s very heartening to see people who are coming after me, like Craig Melvin, whose brother has colon cancer -- he’s taking the mantel, and he’s becoming the nagging wife of colon cancer screenings. [Laughs] I’m so associated with it, and people know that my interest is so genuine, like on my Instagram, you should read the comments. It’s amazing how many people want to share their stories about it. There’s still a bit of a stigma or discomfort in talking about cancer, even today, and I think that we’re stronger together. If we have a sense of community, we can move the needle on some of these things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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