Another Battle

updated 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Emily Couric was in her hometown of Charlottesville, Va., in 1995, campaigning for a seat in the state senate, when an elderly woman gripped her hand and said, "You're Katie's sister, right, hon? I watch her every morning. You look a whole lot alike." To which the older Couric deadpanned, "We have the same parents." Then she unleashed a familiar gaminlike grin.

Now it seems that Emily, 53, and Katie, 43, the effervescent cohost of NBC's Today show, are also linked by misfortune. On July 20, just two years after Katie's husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer at 42, Senator Couric announced, "Yesterday I learned that I have cancer of the pancreas and that this cancer has spread." Couric, an author and mother of two sons, Ray, 26, and Jeff, 24, from the first of her two marriages, had parlayed her '96 upset into a landslide reelection last year. Lately she'd been seeking the Democratic nod for lieutenant governor in 2001. She was bowing out, she said, as her husband, cardiologist George Beller, 59, stood beside her, "to deal with a top priority, which is my health."

"If anyone can beat this, it's her," says Joshua Scott, a Couric campaign aide. "She's a fighter." According to specialists, she faces long odds. Of the 26,000 Americans annually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, only a small fraction survive for more than a year after the disease is discovered. Unfortunately, says Dr. Barbara Conley of the National Cancer Institute, "there are no blood tests or screening procedures to detect it early."

"Emily easily could have been governor," says her friend Larry Sabato, a Virginia political analyst. "That was her goal: to be the first woman governor in Virginia. Both sisters," he adds, "are enormous successes in their chosen fields, but both have been badly treated by fate."

Growing up in Arlington, Va., both Emily and Katie had been groomed for success, along with siblings Clara, 50, a Boston landscape architect, and John, 45, an Arlington CPA. Their parents, John, 79, a retired public relations executive, and Elinor, 77, a homemaker, insisted that each child bring a new word to the dinner table every night.

The oldest would go on to write two books {The Trial Lawyers, Divorce Lawyers), teach high school biology, work in public relations for the Labor Department and serve a six-year stint on the Charlottesville school board before plunging into politics. Yet Katie was always the star of the family. "Even when she was an infant," Emily told Good Housekeeping in 1996, "we'd put her in her plastic seat and then all sit around and watch her." Years later, as Katie pressed the flesh during Emily's first state senate run, the candidate told PEOPLE, "I'm Katie's sister; that's part of the package."

Not that Emily lacked charisma. "She was incredibly well-organized and likable," says Edgar Robb, the incumbent she unseated. "Persistent, tenacious. She's done a very admirable job."

Over the years, Emily and Katie have remained close. "They have the same confluence of warmth and intelligence," says old friend and former NBC colleague Jack Ford, now a 20/20 coanchor. Recently, inspired by Katie's campaign for colon cancer awareness, Emily had pushed through a bill requiring Virginia insurers to pay for colorectal exams.

While Katie remains publicly silent about her sister's illness, everybody around her "is devastated," says a close friend. On the Today set, Couric "seemed fine," says an insider. "I don't want to say she's unaffected, but she tries to maintain professionalism on the air."

"It makes you think of Job," says one pal, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, "and like Job, Katie does not deserve the tests inflicted on her. But like Job, she passes the test every time." indeed, her former Today boss Steve Friedman (now executive producer of The Early Show) predicts, "Just as Katie was there for Jay, she will be there for Emily."

Michael A. Upton
J. Todd Foster in Charlottesville and KC Baker in New York City

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