Writing About, and Through, Cancer

Newsday reporter Lauren Terrazzano on how she writes her weekly column "Life, With Cancer," and how the media usually portrays the disease.

Lauren Terrazzano, social services and child welfare reporter for Newsday, has been writing her “Life, With Cancer” column for Newsday since October 2006. Originally diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2004, Terrazzano received treatment only to find out that the cancer had returned in March 2006, five days after she and her husband returned from their honeymoon. The weekly column is picked up through a wire service agreement Newsday has with the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, as well as other papers across the country. She graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1994 and was an adjunct professor at the school in 2006. She began writing a book a year ago about her experience with cancer, and is currently in treatment and is doing a targeted therapy to attack the cancer.

Satta Sarmah: When did you decide to write this column?

Lauren Terrazzano: I was diagnosed in August of 2004. I didn’t start writing my column until October of 2006 when I was in a more comfortable position to write about it. It was a difficult decision initially. When I was first diagnosed in 2004 at the age of 36, I didn’t want anyone to know. But I later ended up writing a few pieces on the subject and got an overwhelming response from readers. That’s when I realized there was a real void in traditional journalism in how we write about cancer: it’s either sob story or scientific breakthrough. There are so many other dimensions that go unexplored. Yes, there’s angst and misery, but there’s humor at times too. I try to tackle the taboo subjects: the cancer faux pas, the myth of cancer patients as brave, heroic figures, when really we’re just like you, putting one foot in front of the other each day.

SS: Did you have to clear the idea with your editors?

LT: Yes. They were incredibly supportive once they realized how many people are affected by the disease. Nearly 300 people a month in our core readership, Long Island, receive some form of cancer diagnosis. My editors and I were [also] very specific about coming up with the perfect title for the column. The comma after Life is intentional because it’s not a column about cancer; it’s about living with the disease.

SS: You are able to write about a very difficult subject with humor and a bit of sarcasm. Does this approach make it easier to write your column?

LT: It’s really important not to be toned-deaf to what can be a very sensitive subject for people. I find that humor sometimes works because it’s okay to let people know that they’re allowed to laugh even under the most difficult circumstances. Conversely, there are columns I’ve written that have been very somber, very serious.

SS: Do you ever go back and read any of your columns or are you done dealing with them after you write them?

LT: It’s always difficult to confront the deeply personal details of your illness. I’ll occasionally open the paper and cringe and say ‘Gosh, I can’t believe I actually wrote that,’ because it’s so honest. Basically, I wonder if I sometimes cross the line with my irreverent sense of humor. But the feedback has been overwhelming. I get hundreds of emails and letters from readers, which is worth its weight in Pulitzer gold. One of the most rewarding came from a woman last week who was undergoing radiation treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering. She was in the waiting room reading my column and discussing it with other patients who had also been reading it. That made me feel good, since I sat in that very same waiting room months ago, scared to death. I was glad I could give back a little, for what it’s worth.

SS: You’ve said that talking to people with cancer is “like walking through a minefield” and that people sometimes say trite and insensitive things. So, have readers of your column, particularly your friends, family and co-workers, changed the way they behave around you?

LT: Not really. I’m lucky in that people still treat me as who I was before my cancer diagnosis. [But] my husband, friends and family joke that they monitor what they say to me because they fear they’ll end up in one of my columns.

SS: You frequently mention that lung cancer isn’t given the same amount of attention as other cancers. What have you learned through your experience and reporting?

LT: I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to be on the patient end and I think that has helped me become a better reporter on the subject. But there is no one right answer. I’m offering my perspective as a patient and as a journalist. I think that the media in general focuses heavily on coverage of breast cancer issues. There isn’t a lot of ink given to the issue of lung cancer even though it’s the number one cancer-killer for men and women in the United States. That’s largely due to the fact that people who get diagnosed with the disease often aren’t around long enough to become spokespeople, an advocate for the cause.

SS: Since that is the case, have you approached your editors about this issue or have your editors asked you what Newsday can do to better cover these kinds of stories?

LT: I really believe that there should be a definite line between opinion and newsgathering. If my editors can learn from what I say in my column and decide how they’re going to cover cancer, then that’s great. I don’t feel comfortable as a patient telling them how to cover the news side of the story when obviously I’m approaching it from a very biased perspective. I don’t think I would be comfortable as a journalist writing an actual news story about cancer because I think there would be a certain lack of objectivity.

SS: As a journalist, you’ve been trained to ask difficult questions. But you’ve said that it’s been difficult for you to ask yourself these tough questions. Why? Have you allowed yourself to face these questions?

LT: It’s always difficult to turn the reporter’s notebook back on yourself. To confront your own mortality and the daily, deeply personal trials of your fight in front of more than a half million readers is sometimes hard. With each column it gets easier, mostly because I get tons of reader response from people on the same road who seem appreciative that I’m putting into words what they often can’t.

SS: How has writing this column affected the way you live with cancer?

LT: It’s really enabled me to give voice not only to myself, but to thousands of others who are going through the same thing that I’m going through, and that has been helpful for me. I think that I approach the subject more sensitively. I would really like to get across the point that there is a real void in traditional journalism in how we write about cancer. There’s so many other dimensions of the disease that go unexplored. I’m happy to be a part of that netherworld and try to explain to readers the grey aspects.

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Satta Sarmah is a CJR intern.