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Local man interviewed by Couric on the evening news

John Lee of New Richmond said the odds of him being chosen to be on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric are like "finding a needle in a haystack,"

But those were the odds that sent him and his sister packing to New York City to be interviewed by Couric at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

"Katie was doing a series about colon cancer and how genetics are now playing a part in the early diagnosis of the disease," Lee explained. "It just so happened that my sister and I were going through the specific type of genetic counseling Katie was interested in."

According to Lee, Couric asked her producer to find someone with a family history of colon cancer who had done the genetic testing and was undergoing genetic counseling for the results. Couric was specifically looking for one family member who had experienced the disease and one who had not.

Lee's sister, Gretchen Robertson of St. Paul, had been diagnosed with colon cancer at age 38 after having a colonoscopy.

She subsequently had a section of her colon removed and today, seven years later, is doing fine.

After her surgery, Robertson agreed to participate in a research study for colon cancer survivors which included having a genetic test done.

The test showed that Robertson had a gene called Lynch Syndrome, which deemed her predisposed to getting cancer at a young age.

Lee and Robertson's grandmother died from cancer at age 45 and their grandfather succumbed to colon cancer in his 60s.

Normally there is a 50/50 chance that someone possesses that gene, but in Lee and Robertson's case, the odds were more like eight or nine out of 10.

Robertson and Lee were just the family Couric was looking to interview and somehow her producer found them.

"It was just a fluke that the producer called our genetic counselor and she said she thought she had a family willing to be interviewed," Lee said.

A trip to the Big Apple

When Robertson called Lee on March 30, to ask if he'd be willing to go on the CBS Nightly News, he thought she was kidding. Then he told her he needed some time to think about it.

CBS gave him 24 hours to make up his mind.

Before he knew it, Lee's sister was being interviewed in her St. Paul home and he was being filmed doing his job at a Twin Cities supermarket. Lee is a route salesman for Bernatello's Pizza, Inc.

On April 20, a car service was driving Robertson, Lee and Anna Leininger, genetic counselor with Healtheast Cancer Care, to a fancy hotel in New York City.

"That was the best part," Lee said. "We got an all-expense-paid trip to New York and we had some time to kick around and explore while we were there."

The trio visited Times Square, took a ride through Central Park in a Hansom Cab, rode the subway and enjoyed some fine dining in the Big Apple.

Then came the time to meet Katie Couric on April 21.

"She shook my hand and talked to us," Lee said. "She was a nice as she could be."

Lee said he thinks Couric has gotten a bad rap since leaving her last job as a morning show host.

"She was a happy-go-lucky early morning gal and then she had to change her approach when she took the evening news job," Lee said. "I think people took it the wrong way. She's a sweetheart. She thanked us up and down for coming."

Since CBS had no available interview rooms, they made arrangements to film in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Lee described it as a place presidents and dignitaries from other countries stay when visiting the United States.

But Lee said the crew and Couric put him at ease so he wasn't too nervous during their hour and a half filming session.

The interview

Couric asked Robertson about her ordeal with colon cancer and the results of her genetic testing.

She also asked Lee how he felt about the pending results of his genetic testing.

Lee said Couric wanted to get the word out that genetic testing makes it possible for people to take precautions before they get colon cancer.

"Colon cancer is the most easily detected and easily treated cancer," Lee said. "The test is near bullet-proof. Either you have colon cancer or you don't. Other cancers tend to hide. With colon cancer, they can take the pollops out, there's no radiation, no chemotherapy. But if you wait too late to get checked and it runs in your family or if you ignore symptoms, it's not so easy to deal with. Genetic testing can tell if you are predisposed to certain diseases, including cancer, and warn you to have regular preventive colonoscopies."

Lee admits that he dragged his feet on having a colonoscopy, even after his sister was diagnosed in 2000.

"It took me another five years to get checked," Lee said. "I just didn't worry about it."

Luckily, Lee's colonoscopy revealed no disease and he is still cancer free. His genetic test, however, is a different story.

CBS flew back to Minnesota to be with Lee and Robertson when they found out the results of Lee's genetic test on April 30.

Lee's test results

Leininger had the unpleasant task of informing Lee that he does have the gene called Lynch Syndrome, also known as HNPCC (Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer).

"I grew up with the knowledge that heredity is heredity and I would eventually have cancer," Lee said. "I didn't know there was a chance I wouldn't get it. I thought it was a done deal."

Now, even though he has the gene, Lee is better prepared to be proactive against the disease by having regular checkups, so it may not be a "done deal."

The segment with Robertson and Lee on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric aired on May 6.

"We figured it was about five to six and a half hours of filming and our time on T.V. ended up being three-and-a-half minutes," Lee laughed. "They even came to my house in New Richmond and did a segment where I am telling my son about my genetic testing result so he will know to take precautions."

Lee said the piece with Couric "got a lot of good information out there." He also said he agreed to undergo the genetic testing and to be interviewed for two reasons.

"I agreed to do the genetic testing before the TV people called and I did that for the sake of my children," Lee said. " Second, I went on television for the sake of mankind. I wanted to help educate others."

The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric piece may be viewed online at, click on evening news, search videos, click on DNA.