'Passion point': Katie Couric, Merck unveil expanded cancer-stories campaign

Katie Couric and Merck's Claire Mulhearn talked about their evolving cancer awareness partnership Thursday at Digital Pharma Innovation Week.

Merck & Co. is expanding its cancer awareness effort with journalist Katie Couric to cover the entire journey from screening to survivorship—and everything in between. But though the campaign is moving beyond its previous focus on diagnosis and treatment, it's still centered on patient and caregiver stories.

The now-evolved “Your Cancer Story” campaign looks to extend communications and resources—and move onto a new platforms with an inaugural podcast next month.

Couric joined Claire Mulhearn, Merck’s head of external communications, to talk about the expansion plans, along with the strategy behind their original collaboration and changes during COVID-19, on Thursday at Fierce Pharma Marketing’s Digital Pharma Innovation Week.

The partnership began last year as the “With Love, Me” campaign, featuring patient and caregiver advice and resources. At center stage were heartfelt letters from people to their younger, newly diagnosed selves. Those videos have racked up 9.4 million views to date, Mulhearn said.

Yet even as Merck adds to the campaign, personal stories will remain key.

“This campaign proved there’s not only a desire to hear stories from other people, but there is a huge desire to tell your story and to share your own experiences, which I think can also be extremely healing and cathartic,” Couric said.

That’s why Couric has shared her own story—“in the hopes it will help other people who felt as helpless and as powerless and as frustrated as I did as I cared for my husband Jay and our two young daughters.”

Couric’s husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998 when their daughters were ages two and six.

RELATED: Letter to myself: In Merck campaign, cancer patients look back on their diagnoses with heartfelt advice

A podcast series will join the effort in November, starring real patients and caregivers, including Couric, who will talk about issues such as navigating the new conditions around COVID-19

And reflecting the new breadth of the campaign, Couric and podcast guests will discuss what survivorship means to them. The "Your Cancer Story" website has added a "survivorship" tab on its home page.

The survivorship addition was inspired in part by Mulhearn’s own journey with triple-negative breast cancer and how now, after five years, she is beginning to call herself a survivor.

“I’m currently walking in those shoes,” Mulhearn said Thursday.

Couric added, “Your cancer journey doesn’t necessarily end when your chemotherapy ends. As Claire said, for her it was that five-year mark. For me, it might be the amount of time my daughters lived without my husband—when it started to eclipse the number of years they had with him.”

RELATED: Merck extends Couric partnership for online series about cancer during COVID-19

Up next for the partners is screening. During the pandemic, the U.S. saw a 46% decline in cancer diagnosis across six different types of cancer, Mulhearn said.

Couric is closely associated with screening and early detection: She famously had a colonoscopy on-air  in 2000, when she was host of the Today Show. The “Couric Effect” boosted colonoscopies by 20% in the following months, research shows. By 2010, there was a 55% increase in colonoscopy screenings, according to the American Cancer Society.

“It’s such a passion point for me honestly, and it’s something I’ve been preaching for so many years,” Couric said, adding “We don’t want to see people putting the brakes on screening because of COVID.”

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