How New Orleans’ Own Karen Swenson Helped Her Friend and
Today Show Host Hoda Kotb Through Breast Cancer
When Karen Swenson went to work at WWL TV in the early 1990s, in a night shift position that she labels as “glorified intern,” Hoda Kotb was already one of the evening news anchors there. “Hoda came up to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Hoda’,” says Karen, “And we just hit it off immediately.”
Becoming fast friends, they jogged and shopped together, and even ended up living in neighboring apartments. And Karen says their friendship remains unchanged, in spite of Hoda moving to New York several years ago for her broadcast career. “We still do the same things. We run, we shop, we go to Yankees games, we drink margaritas. We haven’t missed a beat.”
When Hoda found a lump in her breast in 2006 and went in for a biopsy, it was Karen who was by her side. Hoda was going through a rough divorce at the time and had no family nearby, so Karen wanted to be sure Hoda would not go through that process alone. She took some time off from the job she had just started, went to New York and after the procedure, followed the doctor away from the room until they were out of Hoda’s hearing.
“If it doesn’t look good, you have to tell me,” Karen said she told the doctor, when she pulled him aside. “He didn’t say anything, but … it was the way he looked at me. I knew.”
Realizing that Hoda wouldn’t want to worry her family, but also knowing that she would need support when the breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, Karen called Hoda’s sister, who went to New York for the diagnosis and to help Hoda determine a course of treatment and other practical matters. Karen says her role was to provide more emotional support.
“Cancer has been a factor all of my life,” says Karen, citing family and close friends who have struggled with the disease, including her father. “I, thankfully, have never been a patient, but I have learned that I can be someone they can lean on, to be that ear, to be the pillow they want to punch.”
And what has she learned is the best way to provide support to someone dealing with cancer? “You need to keep them laughing, to keep them positive and to plug their ears when someone isn’t being positive,” Karen says. “Throw the stats out the window. Keep moving forward.”
Karen says she wants everyone stricken with cancer to look forward to a day when they can “put it in the rearview mirror.” Moreover, she has had plenty of experience with people whose lives have actually gotten better after cancer. “Look at Hoda. She was going through a divorce and cancer simultaneously. She’s now in the prime of health, with a great job and seeing a wonderful guy. The cancer only made her more positive, stronger and more confident. Hoda’s mantra is: “You Don’t Scare Me.” And she lives that. She wasn’t offered The Today Show – she went in and asked for it.”
Karen and Hoda also believe in “paying it forward.”
“It’s natural for people going through cancer to not want it to be the first thing people think about them. And you can be bombarded by people with good intentions,” Karen said. “But Hoda was approached on an airplane by a complete stranger who said ‘Don’t hog your journey,’ and that made a real impression on her. She has always reached out to fellow survivors and patients and handled it with such grace. She’s very grateful for her health and mindful of how lucky she is.”
For Karen, that means helping people dealing with cancer to realize that even though they are a patient for now, they can help others in the future. “I say, ‘You are going to be an inspiration’. And I try and help them do that.”
Karen also knows that every person is going to react differently to a cancer diagnosis and that the key to being there for someone is to just listen. “And I never tell someone to be a fighter. Everyone who is dealing with cancer is a fighter.” She also doesn’t things for granted. “Not since my dad was diagnosed have I taken life for granted. And I don’t sweat the small stuff.”
In the end, cancer made Karen and Hoda’s friendship even stronger. “It brought our friendship to another level. When you’re talking life and death, it can’t get any deeper than that,” she said. And Karen says for whatever support she has given Hoda, it has been more than returned as she has faced tough times in the interim. “Oh, it’s Hoda listening to me these days!”
“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the night.” – Helen Keller