"Because of him I was able to do more good than I thought I was capable of," the Today anchor tells PEOPLE
Credit: Eric Liebowitz/NBC

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Hoda Kotb says it was a perfect stranger who inspired her to open up about her private struggle.

“Often we are so busy with our heads buried in a book or looking at Twitter, you don’t look up and notice what’s around you,” the anchor, 49, tells PEOPLE as the morning show continues its weeklong series “#InspiredBy,” which honors Today‘s personal heroes.

“You might miss a life-changing moment because you weren’t paying attention. I started paying attention and I ended up meeting two people.”

The first of those two people (“I call him, ‘The man on the plane’ but his name is Ken,” she says) gave her the courage to tell the world about her battle with breast cancer.

“I’ll never forget – I sat across from him on a plane and he asked me why I was wearing a compression sleeve. I told him what I had and he said, ‘Don’t hog your journey, it’s not just for you. Think of how many people you can help.’ It’s because of him I was able to do more good than I thought I was capable of.”

After going public with her news, Kotb became a regular participant at breast cancer awareness events. While attending one, she met Jill in a hotel lobby.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off of her,” says Kotb of Jill, who’s battling terminal cancer. “There was a light about her. The saying goes, ‘Happiness is learning to love what you have’ and that’s what she does every day. I want to live like that.”

While Kotb continues to be inspired by the one-time strangers who are now a part of her life, she will continue to look out for those she’s yet to meet.

“Don’t block the world out because your heart is bigger than you think,” she says. “Life-changing moments come from all different places – and sometimes they come from a complete stranger.”