On Sievers’s “My Cancer,” for instance, stories that emerged in the comments were brought into the blog. Stephanie Dornbrook, who kept her own cancer blog, “For Crying Out Loud,” was a regular commenter who earned a following among other “My Cancer” commenters and was featured in Koppel’s Living With Cancer project. Sievers included updates on her condition in his posts when her comments grew scarce, finally announcing her death in January 2008. Afterwards, Sievers posted a letter from Stephanie’s husband, Dustin Dornbrook. It read: “I know she cherished this blog site and all of you were loved by her. I am grateful to Leroy for making it available. It makes me happy so many of you will keep her alive through your memories.”
Despite the comfort the blogs have provided some, there are those who see potential concerns. “Personal stories and anecdotes are incredibly powerful,” says Dr. Andrew Holtz, an author and medical reporter formerly with CNN’s health unit. “The hazard is if the personal stories…are not representative of what the medical evidence says.” In regular medical reporting, anecdotes are chosen to accompany the evidence, or a new development, or the typical experience. These blogs, Holtz says, instead illustrate the old adage that “news is whatever happens to journalists.”
Holtz points to prostate cancer as a good example of where a personal blog might not reflect the medical evidence. New studies suggest that nearly all of the 200,000 cases of prostate cancer diagnosed in the United States each year are overtreated, with doctors mostly recommending the same radical prostatectomy that surgeons performed on Jennings.
A blog like Jennings’s in an outlet like the Times—showing a man who was seemingly saved by prostatectomy—could play against this latest evidence.
Jennings was aware of the concern: “I wanted to make it clear that anything said in the posts was simply based on my own experience—I didn’t want to come off as an expert except on my own case.” He grappled with how he was presenting his case after learning about the rash of supposedly unnecessary prostatectomies, asking if his ride “through the stations of the prostate cancer cross” had been “all a lie? A dark conspiracy of the global medical-industrial complex?”
I’m a wild card, the 1 man in 48 saved by surgery. Without it, my doctors wouldn’t have learned the cancer was so advanced, and wouldn’t have given me the hormones and radiation that helped keep me alive.
…But all of this raises one last stark question: Was my life worth the 47 other prostatectomies that probably didn’t have to be performed? I don’t know. I’m a man, not a statistic.”
That question of identity seems to be a fixation of all the writers. Would writing about cancer, becoming the face and voice of a diagnosis, forever change how they were perceived as journalists? Laura Landro knew she would be always be “that sick girl” after she wrote her WSJ report, but went ahead anyway to show that people could survive, and to show them how. Her cancer has relapsed three times and she is considering a follow-up to her book Survivor.
Jennings, on the other hand, with last year’s release of What a Difference a Dog Makes: Big Lessons on Life, Love and Healing From a Small Pooch, and his cancer in remission, looks forward to moving on. “I don’t want to be a professional cancer patient,” he says.