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?