Back in 1985, when Larry King first began hosting his long-running live interview show on CNN, he opened the show while smoking a cigarette on camera. Over the 25-year course of King’s show, our perceptions about everything from smoking to mental illness to cancer have changed radically -- and King has often played host to our evolving national conversation about health. By sharing their own struggles with conditions like depression, prostate cancer, and HIV, King’s celebrity guests have lifted taboos and made us all more comfortable with talking about what ails us -- and seeking help.
In December, King will turn off his microphone for the last time. As they prepare to wind up the show, he and his longtime producer, Wendy Walker, reminisced with WebMD about the ways in which health coverage has changed over the years, and how “Larry King Live” has helped to change it.
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WebMD: After your heart attack in 1987, you became a crusader for heart disease awareness. How much has the science of cardiology changed since then?
Larry King: The whole field has changed tremendously. Wonder drugs like Lipitor and Plavix have been giant advances in heart disease and cholesterol. And the modes of surgery have evolved tremendously. What took 4.5 hours when I had my heart attack now takes just two hours, and so much of it is done with robotics.
Prevention is also stressed much more today. It started back with [former U.S. Surgeon General] C. Everett Koop in the 1980s, when he required all tobacco advertising to have health warnings. I think the fact that we’ve lowered smoking rates so much is a big factor in [helping to] stopping heart disease.
WebMD: You’ve done more than 300 shows dealing with various health issues over the years. What topics have you focused on most?
LK: We’ve probably done more on cancer than anything else. Lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer. Colon cancer is a classic example of how important prevention can be. ….We had Matt Lauer on the show and he said that he gets a colonoscopy every six months, because his father died of colon cancer. If you’re sitting at home watching that and you know you have a close relative with colon cancer, that’s going to force your attention.
Sen. Bob Dole was very open on our show in talking about his prostate cancer, at a time when few men discussed it. He discovered it with a PSA test. At the Republican Convention in 1992, he and I were walking together and a man came up and said, “Both of you saved my life. I never knew about the test but after I saw you on the show, I went and took it. I had cancer, they took out my prostate and it saved my life. I think of both of you every day.” You can’t match that, as to accomplishing something.