Followers of Leroy Sievers’s “My Cancer” blog knew its expected end approached when Sievers published an entry titled “The Disease Has Exploded” in June 2008. It had been a slow detonation for the former Nightline executive producer and war correspondent. Sievers began writing the blog for NPR in 2006, shortly after the colon cancer he overcame in 2001 resurfaced in his lungs and brain. By the time the disease “exploded,” it had spread to his ribs, shoulder blades, liver, and fractured his brittle pelvic bone. Still, he continued to write nearly every day until his death three months later; his wife, journalist Laurie Singer, often typed as he dictated in their Potomac, Maryland home. Sievers’s last post, published the day before he died, was a brief note on the toy dog sitting with him in bed, his “comrade in cancer.”
You might know the story. Sievers was an Emmy-winning producer before the cancer, and in the early 2000s became something of a poster boy for colonoscopies, writing frankly on Nightline’s daily e-mail newsletter about his first diagnosis. With the relapse, he became something of a sensation. A community of patients, families, and caregivers swelled around the NPR blog, and Sievers made multiple radio and TV appearances as his profile rose. Most famous of these was with Lance Armstrong and Elizabeth Edwards in his friend Ted Koppel’s hybrid town hall/documentary project for Discovery, Living With Cancer. Sievers would joke, “Getting cancer turned out to be a good career move for me.” He suffered and died publicly, and never stopped reporting as he did.
At a time when journalists increasingly turn their reporter’s eye inward, Sievers was not alone in reporting about his battle with disease. A number of journalists, facing damning diagnoses, have blogged about it until their deaths, or into remission. In the United Kingdom, former Huddersfield Times reporter Adrian Sudbury wrote about his fight with leukemia as the “Baldy Blogger” before dying at twenty-seven, just days after Sievers. Dana Jennings, assistant editor of The New York Times’s Arts and Leisure section, began writing for the paper’s “Well” blog after chemotherapy and a prostatectomy left him an incontinent “bazaar of scars.” Kairol Rosenthal was a modern dance choreographer before her diagnosis spurred her to become a journalist, reporting daily on life as a twenty- and thirty-something with thyroid cancer. Last year, not long after Christopher Hitchens had famously written about his cancer in Vanity Fair, NBC online reporter Mike Celizic wrote a final entry to his sporadically updated online “Cancer Journal” before he died in September. “The words are hiding somewhere,” he wrote. “But I’ve sworn to myself that I wasn’t going to write one entry and disappear. For once, I’ll get a story in without a deadline—no pun—to push me.”
Patient-bloggers like these are nothing new. Google “illness x” and “blog” and you will find a web crawling with amateur Leroy Sieverses; the Association of Cancer Resources Online has promoted a kind of blogging since 1995 with a slew of listservs categorized by cancer type. Patient-journalists are hardly news, either. Medical reporters still talk of the “Katie Couric effect”—the spike in colonoscopies following Couric’s on-air test in 2000—and before her, The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Landro went from covering Hollywood to writing a book about her leukemia based on a “Special Report” she wrote for the Journal in 1996, headlined a survivor’s tale. Former Bloomberg reporter Roger Madoff, who died at thirty-two, wrote a book about his own struggle with the disease called Leukemia for Chickens. The difference now is that as patient-bloggers, journalists bring their reporters’ chops; and as journalists, they bring a blogger’s intimate personal tone, constancy, and often, a band of followers keen to interact with the authors and each other.
Sievers’s “My Cancer” blog began on radio. When his cancer returned, he decided to focus one of his regular Morning Edition commentaries on his chemotherapy—it began, “My doctors are trying to kill me.” Impressed by his frankness, NPR suggested a blog (one of the outlet’s first) and a weekly podcast to go along with his broadcasts. Koppel, a close friend who spoke with Sievers daily until his death, had discussed the idea of creating a record of his experience just weeks after the cancer returned. “In Leroy, you had this extraordinary combination of a man with a wonderful sense of humor, writing skill, knowledge of the media, and a very strong man who was willing and able to undergo so many different procedures,” says Koppel. “He was uniquely placed to give a running account of what a cancer patient had to endure—the ups, the downs, what Leroy always referred to as the roller coaster.”