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.
During its run, Sievers’s “My Cancer” was NPR’s most popular blog. Singer, his wife, remembers fellow infusion room patients telling Sievers, “I was feeling that very thing that very day you wrote it.” She recalls, “Leroy would say, ‘It’s almost a little scary for me. Should I be guiding these people through their journey with cancer?’ ” The “My Cancer” community grew so large and so loyal that Singer continued to write about cancer, her time as a caregiver, and grief, after Sievers died. The blog became NPR’s “Our Cancer” page in 2009 and will soon be hosted by Johns Hopkins cancer center, where Singer serves on an advisory panel.
New York Times “Well” blog editor Tara Parker-Pope, who published Jennings’s work, says the web has changed the nature of first-person health reporting, not only creating a daily storyline for readers to follow—not unlike a TV serial—but promoting interaction with the author and among readers in comment sections. A Jennings post about bad news is moving; it becomes intimate when you can offer an immediate note of consolation—and see it responded to just as quickly. And that can serve the storytelling. “What I love about the blog is that people take your story so much beyond the original story,” says Parker-Pope. Reader comments, Parker-Pope adds, can air the experiences of hundreds of readers as a print story never could.