Our favorite anchorwoman talks about how breast cancer changed her—for the better
Entering the world of television news in 1986 as an assistant for CBS News in Cairo, Hota Kotb has moved up the fiercely competitive broadcast journalism ladder with ease and grace to become one of the most well-respected and dynamic network anchors in America today. During her ascent, Kotb worked at WWL-TV as an anchor and reporter, from 1992 to 1998, a reign that turned her into the local icon she remains today. Years later she was whisked away to New York City to begin her lucrative career as a Dateline NBC correspondent and the host of the weekly syndicated series Your Total Health. And while she may now work in the Big Apple instead of the Big Easy, New Orleanians still get to welcome the gregarious Kotb into their homes on a regular basis, thanks to her prestigious position as co-anchor of the fourth hour of NBC’s Today show, an absolute dream job for Kotb.
But life turned out to be not so dreamy in 2007 when Kotb discovered she had developed breast cancer. Understandably shocked by the diagnosis—she is, after all, a lean, mean role model for picture-perfect healthy good looks—Kotb quickly vowed to fight the horrible disease tooth and nail. After an arduous battle, Kotb came out on top, surviving and thriving and making the important decision to share her intimate story with the world. She may be a winner of Murrow, Peabody, Gracie and duPont awards for her outstanding journalistic work, but for New Orleanians, our beloved Kotb is a true winner on many other levels.
Hoda Kotb! Girl, what’s shaking?
Christine Fontana! How are you?
I’m great! And you, well you are just the busiest woman on earth these days! You’re everywhere!
I know! What happened? I used to be so not busy!
Well, you were stolen away from New Orleans by NBC! No, actually it is fabulous to see you every morning here in New Orleans on the Today show! Everyone is so excited for you. You know, New Orleans always wants to claim you as their own, sort of like a proud parent going, “Look at our girl, tearing things up on national TV! That’s our baby!”
Well, I like to claim New Orleans as mine too! Just today, Chubby Checker—who’s actually so adorable and not chubby, I should add—was downstairs, and he walks up to me and goes, “Heeey, baaaby! I hear you’re a New Orleans girl!” and, like, wraps his arms around me! And Kathie Lee [Gifford] was like, “Oh, no, she’s from Virginia,” and it’s like “No, no, no—I might be from Virginia, but I’m from New Orleans!”
So it’s part of your normal job routine to get hugged by Chubby Checker … that’s awesome! You must be having a blast! What’s a day in the life at the Today show like?
Oh, Christine, it’s a blast! I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up, but for the last week I’ve gotten up at 4:30 a.m. and hit the gym by 5:15 a.m. My goal is after I run for 30 minutes, I get to sit in the steam room. All I think about is the steam room! Let me get through the horrible run, so I can sit my butt in the steam room! Then I get to work by 6:30 a.m., and I start reading the papers and catching up on all the segments, and at 7 a.m. I watch the top of the show to see what’s going on and start hair and makeup and that’s about the time when Kathie Lee arrives. We catch up with each other and sometimes guests come in and out of the makeup room—Ed Harris was there yesterday, Natalie Cole was there today, Dionne Warwick was in recently. It’s just so much fun to see the cool, interesting people who walk through the door. Then after that, our producers come in at 8 a.m. and we start going over the chat that we do at the top of the show and talk about subjects, and we’re usually out of there by 9:15 a.m. Kathie Lee and I try to coordinate outfits somewhat, so we don’t totally clash, and we get dressed and then we make the magic happen! That’s what we do!
How much do you enjoy co-anchoring with Kathie Lee Gifford, and how did it come about that you two would be a team?
Kathie Lee was on the show as a guest, and we had so much fun with her. She was just a gas. And I think management took note of just how easy it was for her to step right back in, and I liked her instantly. Then they arranged for Kathie Lee and me to have lunch, and we went upstairs to the Rainbow Room, and we were up there for four or five hours—please! We ate and talked, and by the end, the waiters were vacuuming around our feet. We just really clicked and at that point management asked her to come on board to see if she was interested in getting back on daytime television, and it’s been a crazy fun party ever since. We’re having a ball! I’m just really enjoying myself. Some days I come to the set and say, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here.” It happens a lot! It’s just such a cool thing for me. It’s like a dream come true.
Well, what can I say, but I told you so!
[Laughs] Thank you for that Christine! You did! You were one of the great predictors for years. Thank you so much. That just makes me feel great!
Now we’re keeping our eyes peeled for you to have your own book club, your own magazine, a spaghetti sauce line …
You are crazy! [Laughs] You’re hilarious!
Okay, tell me all about covering the Olympics in Beijing this summer. What a fabulous experience!
It was a blast! We had such a wonderful time as the Today show family, with all the incredible history of China, like the Great Wall, and I got to see history made when Michael Phelps touched that wall—come on! Unbelievable! When he tied the records, I was hugging his mother; she was never going to let go of me! She was hugging Al Roker and she was never going to let go of Al, then she was hugging me, and she said in my ear, “I love Al Roker!” It was one of those great moments where you were watching an incredible historical moment being made. And the food was outrageous! Scorpions on sticks, a donkey pot pie, everything was crunchy. I just ate whatever they handed me! I got to tell you it was delicious; I didn’t have a bad meal while I was there. Not New Orleans good, but good!
What have been some other memorable shows for you since you started on the Today show?
When it comes to just the laughs, I’ve got to be honest, Christine, every day is packed with people and excitement! We had Brad Garrett on last week, and he was so funny. And everything is so spontaneous, and that’s what I like. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. It’s just been one of the best professional experiences of my life. And one of the big shows we did was an hour dedicated to breast cancer, which was after I had my surgery. I was unsure about being public about such a private thing. And at the end of it, I was glad I did it because people were saying, “Boy, my sister has it too, and it’s good to see that you’re healthy and that you’re not shrinking away and hiding from it.” That made me feel good, and that kind of stuff is always moving.
You are the picture of health—beautiful, strong, fit—and who in New York hasn’t witnessed you running around Central Park? So how strange is it that you of all people would be diagnosed with breast cancer?
I know! I was freaked. I was thinking to myself, I eat apples, I’m always making sure I don’t have too much bad stuff, I work out—I’m like, wait, this doesn’t seem like me. But when I went for a regular gyno visit, the last thing I was thinking of was that. During a breast exam my doctor said, “You feel this thing? You should get it checked,” and I wasn’t nervous at all. I thought breasts are funny things, and I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t going to run out and make an appointment that second. And she said to me, “In two weeks, let me know what the results are.” So I go, “Oh, I have a deadline.” So I made an appointment, and they did the biopsy and again, I thought, “This is nothing.” I was really fine about the whole deal, and I’m sitting in my office with some interns, and I saw that the caller ID said “Mount Sinai,” and I told the kids, “I have to take this call, one second and I’ll be right back with you,” and I said, “Hello?” and they said, “Is this Hoda? This is Mount Sinai, and we need to talk to you,” and I said, “What’s the deal?’ and the guy said, “Not good news for you.”
And that was all I heard. I went “okay” and he went on and on and I heard nothing except “not good news, not good news.” And I hung up the phone, and the kids got up and I said, “I think you guys should go, I guess,” and one of them looked up and said, “Can I hug you?” I was a wreck and this kid had no idea what was happening but sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.
I mean, Hoda, you host a national health show for goodness’ sake. You’d think you’d have automatic immunity from ever contracting something like cancer!
I know! And you think that the way we sort of wag our fingers at people to go get checked and tested that I should have done that too! [Laughs] Because at 42 you’re supposed to have had a mammogram and I didn’t, and I just figured a few years here and there isn’t going to make that much of a difference.
And a mastectomy is not an easy thing to deal with. You had to go to war with this thing.
Christine, it was an eight-hour surgery. They did everything in one hit. It was the whole deal. My sister did all the reading up on it. I’m a journalist, and I didn’t want to know all the details. All I wanted to do was pick the right doctor and feel good about it. My sister was like, “Oh, you should see, they’re going to take your stomach and move it …” and I was like, “I don’t want to know!” And after the surgery they were like, “Oh, well, we had to remove your belly button.” And I was like “What? Are you serious??” I was horrified! And they unwrapped me and I was thinking, “This is going to be horrible!” but you know what? They put in another one! It was crazy! They take your belly fat and put it in your breasts; they don’t want to put something plastic or fake in there. So the added bonus is you get a tummy tuck!
Girl, you’re the last person on earth who needed a tummy tuck!
They were like, “There are two options: One is we do a tummy tuck …” and I was like, “That’s the one!” They were like, “You want to hear the other option?” I was like, “No, I’m good on the tummy tuck!”
[Laughs] Well, there’s a silver lining to everything! Another silver lining was that you were able to share your story and be there for others who have had cancer hit so close in their lives.
I’m glad I did. At first I was nervous about shooting the segment. And after I made it through, I was in this exhilarated state of, “Oh, my God, it’s not in my lymph nodes. I made it.” Then I felt like I could use this to help other people. It’s awkward because your life is exposed. People will come up to me on the plaza and hug me and say, “Oh, my God, my sister has breast cancer,” and hug me and Ringling Brothers Circus is going on—life just goes on. It’s a personal bond that I found I had with complete strangers. So although I felt I gave something, what I got back—let me tell you this, Christine—is times a gazillion! I mean, the hugs, the reassurance, the feeling that you’re not alone—boy, I got that. I thought I was giving it, but I discovered the point is what you get in the end. And it’s very personal. It’s funny the way people tell you their stories once you share yours. I have all these e-mails that I printed and saved and sometimes I just page through them, and it’s so uplifting the way that people reached out. It was a real healing tool for me.
You have said that a “gift” you get as a survivor of breast cancer are these four words: “You can’t scare me.”
I think once you look the lion in the mouth and you’ve stood at the edge and you’ve made it, you get this exhilarating feeling and you realize the bright spot from the whole horrible ordeal is those four words, “You can’t scare me.” They’re brilliant. Now when I get one of those bills I forgot pay that comes back pink and says, “We’re going to the collection agency,” I’m like, “Okay, all right, whatever.” Issues that were big issues before don’t rattle your cage. It’s all about simplifying and stuff like that shouldn’t ruin your day; you have a day, you get another day, so I’m not going to let the small stuff have any impact on me. I’m just grateful that I’ve still got that feeling.
And instead of feeling devastated and defeated, your bout with cancer has made you more positive and upbeat than ever.
It’s weird to say that surviving cancer makes you a better person, but it’s a reality check on life. We all know we’re going to die one day, but cancer kind of tells you that earlier that you expected. It’s like if I had my life to live over again, what would I do? You really do figure out what you’ll do different this time around. And I’ve learned to be more positive, more accepting and just more open, which is probably the biggest thing.
What events in October will you participate in to bring awareness to breast cancer?
I think I’ve got a couple of speeches, and I think we’ll do some stuff on the show and just anything I can do. I’ll be honest, Christine: I want to do it all, and I don’t want to just do it in October. No matter what month it is, count me in!
You are the best, Hoda! So one more thing: Are you noticed everywhere you go in New York since you are so big-time now? Can’t you just enjoy a meal at a restaurant in peace anymore, or do people attack you constantly?
Let me be clear: not like New Orleans, okay! [Laughs] Kathie Lee and I go out and do stuff like theater and people are just cool, you know. People are sweet. But when someone wraps their arms around you in the street, you know they’re from New Orleans! [Laughs] I find them every day when we’re outside on the plaza. You usually don’t get blind hugs from just anybody! They are absolutely from New Orleans!