Remembering 'My Cancer' Blogger Leroy Sievers
NEAL CONAN, host:
The cancer that journalist Leroy Sievers chronicled for NPR on the air and on his blog took his life this past Friday. When he last joined us on this program in July, his site at npr.org, My Cancer, had become a virtual meeting place for tens of thousands of people, those battling cancer themselves, survivors, their family and friends, all gaining strength from Leroy Sievers and from each other.
LEROY SIEVERS: Well, I like to think that it's all of us together. It's not just me. I get as much from those 30,000 people and all the others out there as I hope they do from me. We're all in this together and that, you know, I hope that comes through everyday.
CONAN: There are now over a thousand comments on the post that notified his readers of his death. We wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about Leroy Sievers. If you'd like to tell us what he and the blog, My Cancer, meant to you, you can give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com, and you could also weigh in on his My Cancer blog, that's at npr.org/mycancer.
Ted Koppel is still with us. He worked with Leroy Sievers for many years at "Nightline," and of course, Leroy felt like a friend to so many. He was a dear personal friend to you and our condolences, Ted.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you. A couple of things about Leroy that I think your listeners need to know if they don't already. For one thing, since this is radio and since neither radio nor the Internet convey a sense of size, you need to know that Leroy was an oak tree of a man, a giant. He was six-foot-five. At times, although he will be not happy with me, no matter where he is right now, for my revealing that at times he would tip the scales at over 270, but he had it down for the most part down around 240 or 250. But a very big guy with a booming laugh.
Leroy was a man who literally and figuratively filled any room that he entered, a man widely beloved by people who have known him as fellow journalist over the years. And that's the other thing. Leroy always believed that it was his success in journalism that was what he would leave behind as his heritage. He was the executive producer of "Nightline" for five years. He was embedded with me when we were over in Iraq at the beginning of the war there. He was - over the course of the years, covered 12, 13 or 14 different wars. ..TEXT: He was a phenomenal journalist, a great producer, a man who was personally responsible for many of the great programs that we did on "Nightline" - and yet. What he and I talked about many times over the last few weeks is how important the role he has played within the cancer community by virtue of letting his optimism leak onto the Internet and help people out there.
Leroy was supposed to be dead within three to six months. That was 33 months ago. He tried everything, and the good doctors and nurses at the Johns Hopkins deserve an enormous amount of credit. He changed their way of looking at cancer because of his own strength of will, his willingness to try any new methodology, his courage, his optimism. He was just a force, and ultimately, that's what he's going to be remembered for.
CONAN: If you heard Leroy Sievers on this program, if you participated or read his My Cancer blog, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And Ted, there was some clips of tape from the commentaries that Leroy broadcast on Morning Edition. The program ran some this morning, and one of the things they ran was his call for when he leaves, that his friends all get together and get roaring drunk and tell wonderful stories about him. And he said he thought he could rely on his friends to do that.
KOPPEL: Knowing most of his friends or at least a great many of his friends, I think he can. A very small group of his friends, in fact, gathered just yesterday afternoon together with Leroy's wife and her sister and his two sisters and two of his nephews, and we went down to one of the locks(ph) on the C&O Canal because Leroy and his wife, Laurie, and I had hiked along that canal so many times. It was a very special place to him. And so we just went down there and we talked about Leroy and raised a glass of champagne to him, ate a little chocolate and then tossed some flowers into the Potomac in his memory. And I think he would have been very pleased.
CONAN: As you remember his journalistic career and your work with him at "Nightline," surely the memories of the embed in Iraq have to be very fresh and very poignant. Nevertheless, tell us a little bit of something behind the scenes when you were working there on the program on a regular basis.
KOPPEL: Well, let me - if you're talking, first of all, about the embed, he and I were in the same Land Rover together for about 30 days without any chance to take off our bio-chem suits that the military had given us, without any air conditioning, having to keep the windows of that Land Rover closed because we were always driving behind either an armored personnel carrier or a tank which was kicking up massive quantities of dust. And I can say, under those circumstances, having driven God knows how many hundreds of miles over those two to three weeks that drove up to Baghdad, we were friends when we started, we friends throughout, and we were friends at the end. And you can't say that of many people when you've had to endure those kinds of conditions.
CONAN: You have this email from Nancy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts: "I had my question read on the program Mr. Koppel hosted last month with Mr. Sievers. He answered my question and I was and am very grateful from his perspective and feedback. He helped me with a very sore spot in my emotional life, trying to better understand a loved one who's been fighting cancer. My loved one also listened to the program. I hope he was able to make a connection with the comments Mr. Sievers and Mrs. Edwards made. Mr. Sievers touched my life and I imagine that may be his greatest legacy, opening his life so that we may all understand better."
Now let's get a caller on the line. Tom joins us, Tom calling us from Silver Spring in Nevada.
TOM (Caller): Good afternoon, thank you for having this show.
TOM: I found Mr. Sievers very inspirational to me, as I have some of the similar cancers. And I've now gone a year - survived a year and two days. I live off the grid, have no running water, et cetera, things like those. So the radio has been a great help to me in reading - hearing his situation and also the situation the previous fellow who did the last lecture.
There is one big divide, though, in America now. There is people like those folks whose cancer is as evil as mine is. They have insurance.
CONAN: An issue that certainly came up on the blog. But I wonder, Tom, one of the things that Leroy said in his first broadcast was that ultimately no matter how many people support you, how many friends want to be there with you, they're alone. His experience with his blog, he said, convinced otherwise, that there are so many others in the situation. I wonder, you, living as you do, do you feel alone sometimes?
TOM: Well, I do, sometimes. The solitude has been a great help. I live out in the middle of the desert by myself and the solitude has been a great threat to my stability, but I have two wonderful dogs that I've been involved in. They call it animal rights activism out here in the desert. And I have been very political so I know lots of people. And I am trying to point out - my goals is to point out that the average person, the working class, cannot get enough insurance.
KOPPEL: Can I jump in for a moment, Neal, because I just want to say, amen to everything that Tom has just said and that Leroy would be the first to support you. That fact of the matter is, A, he did have good insurance, B, because he had been a prominent journalist for years and had friends with connections, too, he was able to get access to absolutely the finest medical care available in the United States through Johns Hopkins. And the difference between that and trying to hack it on you own without insurance, you know, can't be exaggerated. I totally agree with what you said.
TOM: It's so strange. I was offered marriage in Poland, a woman half my age, who I knew from working with the Marino(ph) so I'd have health care. In fact, I was getting ready to send Mr. Sievers the shirt - I make and sell shirts that say, "Armed, off my meds, and can't pay my doctor bills."
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, I'm sure some people on the blog might be interested in buying some of those shirts anyway.
TOM: Get to shirt.com. All my doctors wear them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
You got to have a sense of humor, but I realized, as connected as I am in the community - now I live in a 50-year-old trailer with no water, no heat. My dog is out in the desert. There are people that are homeless with these same illnesses. If they cannot explain it to the doctors - doctors in this country are wonderful but you get the minimal care because you are not paying for it. I am paying mine and get to shirt.com. It lists my 141,000 dollars.
KOPPEL: Listen. He would have loved your T-shirt and he had one draped over the back of a chair at his dining room table that said, cancer sucks, and I'll bet you'll subscribe to that one, too.
TOM: Well, it's been a life-changing thing. It really has.
CONAN: Tom, hang in there.
TOM: Yes, sir. Thank you very much for your excellent radio, and Mr. Koppel, nice to talk with you.
KOPPEL: Thank you.
CONAN: So long. This is an email from Ann in Middletown, Connecticut. "I am a hospice dietician. I followed and became friends with Leroy over the past two years. He gave me such insight into what my patients and their families go through, and he has made me a more compassionate professional and human. How can you thank someone for something as life changes as that? My prayers are with his family and his friends, all the thousands of us."
We're talking, of course, about Leroy Sievers, about his broadcast here on Talk Of The Nation and about his blog called My Cancer. Our guest is Ted Koppel, who worked with him for many years at "Nightline." You are listening to Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. And if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email, email@example.com. Mark is with us, Mark calling from Los Gatos in California.
MARK (Caller): Hello, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
MARK: Yes, I just wanted to make quick comment. I didn't know Leroy, watch him on television or see him on television, and I first heard him because I am an avid NPR listener. And I heard his comments early on in his therapy when it all seemed like the radiation therapy had taken care of everything. And so I stopped listening after a while because I thought while he was cured. But I was just amazed at how he was - even when - I heard just recently that his last radio address, you know, he was told to put all his affairs in order, at how selfless he was. I mean, even in his blog he was commenting on who is going to continue this blog when I am finally - when I can't do it any more. And it was focused on that. ..TEXT: And most people, when they're sick and they realize that it's the end, they tend to become very introverted, it's like, OK, what am I going to do? How am I going to - he wasn't like that at all. And I - it gives some insight because I have an uncle right now in England whose skin cancer spread to his lungs and to his brain, and he'll probably pass on in the next week or so.
KOPPEL: Well, you couldn't be more right about how selfless Leroy was. Let me just correct you on one thing. By the time he got to the radio frequency ablation, he had been battling cancer for probably more than 18 months already. The RFA was something that they tried that is, to a certain extent, still regarded as experimental. And one of the great ways in which Leroy had an impact was to convince the medical staff at Hopkins that they have an obligation to lay out to each patient, here's what's available to you. These are the options. You can try this. Maybe it will work, maybe it worked, maybe it won't.
But at different stages in cancer treatment, obviously, patients are going to say, what else do I have to lose? You know, I'll try it. And in fact, the radio frequency ablation did help him with a good quality of life for a number of months that he wouldn't have had otherwise.
CONAN: And Mark, I should say that on several floors above us, as I sit here in studio 3A, there are discussions underway even as we speak on how best to continue the My Cancer blog. No decisions have been reached as yet. But I think other than the decision to keep it going somehow, and they're just trying to figure it out the best way to do that, it is still open and people are still writing in. I'm sure we're receiving comments even now commenting about Leroy's death.
MARK: Yeah, I wish in retrospect I had put the email, the blog link to my cousin in England when my uncle was diagnosed. But I think it's kind of difficult because you're kind of recognizing, oh, well, he's going to die. And you don't want to think that way. You want to be positive and think, well, maybe he can, you know, blow through this, and so you're kind of in mixed emotions. And in retrospect now, you think, well, we can learn a lot from it. You can read it. You can understand what's going on in people's minds because it's really hard when somebody's dying. I mean, what do you say to them? I mean, it's - I'm without words.
CONAN: Yes, that's kind of the problem, we all are, and one of the things that Leroy helped us to learn was keep on talking about it, even when you think you're without words, to keep on communicating with those who are in a dire situation, to try to understand what they're going through and to tell them that you love them.
MARK: Yeah, I think those are very good words. I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
CANON: Thanks, Mark.
CONAN: Ted, it's interesting. I wanted to ask you. Leroy obviously had a gift for communications. Yet, for most of his career, he operated behind the scenes.
KOPPEL: He did, but as you well know, you have a fine executive producer, too. The producers who help us, those of us who are on the air, either radio or television, do a phenomenal amount of work and are really much more selfless that we are. You and I get the glory. They get to explain our mistakes to the bosses upstairs. Leroy was an extraordinarily selfless man both in his professional and in his personal life.
CONAN: Let's see if we get one last caller. Angie joins us from Somerville in Massachusetts.
ANGIE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say briefly, I had spoken with Leroy two Novembers ago, when my husband was waiting for his first chemotherapy appointment in the same place where I had had chemo. And we followed his blog regularly. Even though we knew that he was in the last stages, we were shocked and surprised that he has passed on. And I wanted to say that he still lives on for us and I'm sure everybody else who had the great pleasure and fortune of coming into contact with him in some way, and I wanted his wife and family and loved ones to know that.
CONAN: Angie, thank you very much for that, appreciate it. Here's an email from Louise: "Perhaps the best measure of a worth of a man's life is that someone who had never met him, except through the occasional features on the radio, wept on learning of his death. Would that we all would live in such a meaningful way."
And we're going to give Leroy the last word. Talk about why he didn't like the word "battle" against cancer.
SIEVERS: A lot of cancer patients don't like the fighting analogy for the same reason that, oh, I was fighting the disease and I lost. You know, no one wants to think that way. You fight the disease as long as you can, and you have to take it at that.
CONAN: Leroy Sievers died on Friday but he didn't lose. Ted Koppel, thanks very much for being with us today.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Ted Koppel will join us many Mondays to talk about international news. We were talking today about his friend and our colleague, Leroy Sievers, and his blog, My Cancer. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR news.
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