09/16/2011 01:08 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Katie Couric readies for daytime TV return, continues work for cancer awareness

TORONTO - Her lengthy resume of newsmaker interviews includes presidents, top athletes, four-star generals and rappers, but Katie Couric sees her greatest professional accomplishments in a deeply personal cause — raising awareness of colon cancer.

The disease claimed the life of Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, who died in 1998 at age 42.

As co-anchor of NBC's morning show "Today," Couric memorably underwent an on-air colonoscopy more than a decade ago, which was credited for a spike in screenings following her examination. In the years since, she has continued to be a champion of the cause.

"Being an advocate for raising money for cancer research and for increasing awareness and for getting people to take charge of their own well-being and health — it's resulted in lives being saved," said the affable Couric in an interview at a downtown hotel.

"People come up to me and say: `I was screened for colon cancer because of you and it saved my life.' And I think that that has been such a gift for me to be able to pay forward, if you will, in the wake of a tragedy involving my husband who died way too soon and of a disease that — if detected early — can be cured."

Couric was in Toronto this week for a dinner at Max Mara's new flagship boutique to be celebrated for her philanthropic work, including her role in helping to establish The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health.

A clinical centre of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Medical College of Cornell University, it offers screenings, preventive care, cancer treatment and support resources for patients and their families affected by GI cancers.

Couric is continuing her advocacy work during a period of significant professional transition.

After signing off from the anchor desk at the "CBS Evening News" in May, she made the move to ABC, where she has already been conducting interviews for the news division. Next September, Couric will make the return to daytime TV with her own talk show.

After 15 years with "Today" and five years in the CBS anchor chair, Couric admits it's a bit of an adjustment not being front and centre on the day's news events.

"I sometimes miss it, but other times, I'm really grateful for the flexibility," she said. "To be able to go shoot a story, to be able to research a story, to travel ... and not necessarily be chained to an anchor desk is really liberating in a lot of ways."

"I'm going to be doing a daily show in a year and I know it's not forever. So to be honest with you, I'm really relishing the flexibility and not having to put makeup on every day," she added, laughing.

With her new chatfest, Couric is looking forward to the luxury of more time to explore issues in greater depth and detail, something she admits was a challenge during evening newscasts where "you're always racing the clock" to fit in the day's events.

Couric has "a million topics" she's interested in, and said whole shows could be dedicated to topics ranging from technology's effects on kids' brains to the Navy Seals.

"I really have a lot of respect for viewers. I think they're like I am. They want some help in making sense of the world. They want to understand complex issues a little better," she said.

"They want to have some fun. By the way, I'm going to also have some fun," she added, smiling. "I don't want it to all sound, like, Debbie Downer or super-serious. I want to respect the audience, and I think that I want to elevate the conversation, and hopefully, other people want that as well."

With the loss of both her husband and sister, Emily, to cancer, Couric said she has a strong interest in health and medical issues. She expects it will also be a focus of coverage in her new show, saying it's "critically important" for people to understand and stay informed on health-related matters.

"I'm not going to be Dr. Oz. But on the other hand, I think I'm pretty effective at sort of synthesizing and distilling complicated medical issues," she said.

"I had to learn to do that when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, so I hope I can bring any skill I have in that arena to the table."

Couric said she has great admiration for others who have preceded her at the helm of their own talk shows, citing Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres. Yet it's always been her intention to maintain her own identity and bring her individual sensibilities to the table.

"Even when I started the `Today' show, I thought: `Oh, should I watch tapes of (former host) Jane Pauley?' And I thought, `I'm not Jane Pauley, and I don't want to try to be Jane Pauley. I just want to be myself.'"

"So I don't think I want to emulate any of them," she continued. "I want to take their great work and hopefully their standards and hopefully have the same high standards many of them have had in the past. I do definitely want to carve out my own unique way of doing things."