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.”
In June 2009, he wrote of the side effects of hormone therapy:
When I wasn’t devouring a king-size Italian sub or smoldering from a hot flash, it seemed that I was crying. The tears would usually pour down when I got ambushed by some old tune: “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” by Carly Simon and, yes, “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore. Not only was I temporarily menopausal, but it appeared that I was also turning into a teenage girl from the early 1970s.
Like Jennings, Landro says an urge to honesty drove her to write about her disease for the Journal in the 1990s—to show readers what the doctors won’t tell them: “They’re not going to tell you that you’re going to throw up every five minutes for the whole two weeks ahead of you…. They’re not going to say that your esophagus lining is going to slide into your stomach, and it’s going to feel like fire when you swallow.” More than that, Landro wanted to show readers how she used her “ability to source, to interview, and to evaluate information”—her journalist’s toolbox—to navigate the health care system and to vet, in a very practical sense, everything she was being told. Cancer was like a foreign country; Landro wanted to provide a guidebook.
In her original WSJ piece, Landro reported that a suggested T-cell-stripping procedure was less effective than she’d been led to believe. “We learned about this not from either my hematologist or Sloan-Kettering, but by analyzing the hospital’s reports of its results in medical journals and comparing them to reports from other institutions,” she wrote, adding that once confronted, her “young doctor at Sloan-Kettering acknowledged that our analysis was essentially correct.”
Though such investigative nuggets are rarer in the new crop of cancer blogs, readers seem to appreciate their honesty and thoughtfulness. After his first post attracted over 200 comments, Jennings said to his wife, Deb, “I feel like I’m the Beatles of prostate cancer.” His most popular post, about the health problems of the family dog, Bijou, has attracted over 700 comments to date and spawned a book. “My Brief Life as a Woman,” Jennings’s entry about his months “aboard the Good Ship Menopause” as he underwent hormone therapy, was the Times’s most e-mailed story that day. Deb has been in touch with six wives of prostate cancer patients who read Jennings’s blog. She, and their son Owen, who survived non-cancerous liver failure in his senior year of high school, contributed to and were featured in the blog.