Sievers did not necessarily dig deep into the medical questions surrounding his treatments and prognoses. But he reported unflinchingly on his own condition, feelings, thoughts, and could fashion a helluva lede. In January 2007 he wrote:
I was sitting in the radiation waiting room yesterday morning. It was crowded. The computers had crashed earlier and everything was running way behind schedule. Everyone else there seemed to know one another; they had been getting the treatments for a while. I was the new guy, but was immediately welcomed into that instant community of cancer patients. Everyone there was older. At fifty-one, I was one of the younger patients.
And then one of the men said, “There’s a child in there.” The big, lead door had opened and he could see into the treatment room. Immediately, everything changed. The room got sort of quiet; people even lowered their voices. This was something terrible.
Joe Matazzoni, an executive producer at NPR who helped launch the blog, describes it as “a wonderful public performance of what is usually a private drama.”
“Leroy was a journalist and he brought that to his own experience with cancer,” he says. “The way he could write, in a manner that was so direct, without self-pity, and without mawkishness of any kind, and address the big issues of mortality, frankly spoke for itself.” It spoke to others, too. Sievers’s wife Singer recalls one man writing in after visiting his cancer-stricken father in the hospital. Asked how he felt, the father responded, “I don’t know, go read Leroy, he will tell you how I feel.”
Singer says her husband approached cancer as he had war. “He covered fifteen wars and his focus was less the war itself than the death and destruction of the conflict, the life lessons that could be drawn from it. That’s how he felt about the cancer. He wanted the reader to take away from what he was going through whatever they could learn about life more than death.” In a Morning Edition commentary from November 2006, transcribed for the blog, Sievers said:
A doctor told me early on that cancer meant many people would want to talk about things I definitely didn’t want to talk about. He was right. I have to talk about my body to strangers. I have to talk to my doctors about my greatest fears. I have to talk about my death. But it doesn’t bother me anymore.
I don’t worry as much about keeping up a facade, either. I have cried, more than I ever had before. I’ve been more open to friends and loved ones about how much they mean to me. Before I got sick, I would’ve been embarrassed to say some of those things out loud.
In the cancer wards, you see more physical displays of affection. A touch, a hand on the shoulder, some gesture meant to reassure or just let the other person know they’re not alone. Cancer teaches that worrying what other people will think and being discreet is something we don’t have time for.
What has happened, I think, is that we’ve all been humbled. Cancer has freed us to do the things we knew we should be doing all along.
The Times’s Dana Jennings’s decision to write about his own long, cancerous brush with death came just as organically. Test results after his July 2008 prostatectomy revealed a cancer more aggressive than doctors originally thought. Struggling for a new book idea, he needed to push past the wall this diagnosis erected in his mind. Jennings enacted a professor’s advice from college—write through what’s blocking you—and, from November until the following October (and intermittently since then), detailed his life with cancer and the effects of the treatment on his body in weekly updates of uploaded videos and blunt, unsentimental prose on the Times’s “Well” blog.
He was filling a need he found after his own diagnosis, when he was unsatisfied with widely available, but dry and often technical, online writing on cancer. “I was really looking for a strong, compassionate voice,” he says. “I wanted to read something where I felt like another human being was talking to me. Another human being who could write well.”
His own body was his number one subject. “Almost all of the side effects are just really difficult,” he says. “Guys don’t want to talk about incontinence and impotence, your penis shrinking. But that stuff happens. I wanted to be honest.” Jennings managed to mix humor with honesty, writing in one post: “I’m not quite what you’d call a catch. I wear man-pads for intermittent incontinence . . . and haven’t had a full erection in seven months.”