NEAL CONAN, host:

Fighting cancer takes every weapon you've got, sometimes even a new persona. Dana Jennings has an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He's an editor at The New York Times and he blogs for the paper about coping with his disease. Last summer he had some serious surgery, and he got a serious haircut. His article, "With a Buzz Cut, I Can Take On Anything" appeared last week in The New York Times, and we'd like to hear from our listeners today who are battling cancer. How has the disease changed your identity or how hasn't it? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dana Jennings joins us now from his office in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. DANA JENNINGS (Editor, New York Times): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And I guess the first question has to be, how are you doing?

Mr. JENNINGS: I'm doing pretty well. I'm, you know, I'm in that strange limbo that cancer patients often face where treatment has ended and I'm waiting for the first test that'll tell me, you know, that'll really tell me how I'm doing.

CONAN: That'll tell you whether you're in remission or whether it's come back.

Mr. JENNINGS: Right, exactly.

CONAN: Well, tell us about that day, what, I guess it was last July, just before you had the surgery.

Mr. JENNINGS: Right. I'd gone through three months of, you know, being tested and retested and talking with doctor after doctor and it was finally determined that I would have surgery to have my cancerous prostate out in early July. And basically four days before surgery I went and got a number one buzz cut.

CONAN: Number one buzz cut?

Mr. JENNINGS: Number one, yeah. You can get a number three, which is not quite as short. These days I get one that's a bit shorter than a number one called a one-zero.

CONAN: A one - so that's the setting on the electric clippers?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: So this is almost shaved.

Mr. JENNINGS: Almost. Almost. It's pretty darn short.

CONAN: But you hadn't lost your hair from treatments.

Mr. JENNINGS: No. Originally, you know, I told my family that the reason I was doing it because I didn't want to have hospital hair. I've been in the hospital before and for those of you who have been in the hospital, hospital hair is just kind of how your hair kind of gets greasy and skanky and all that stuff. But really, I got the buzz cut because it made me feel like a middle linebacker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Made you feel tough.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, even though I'm not.

CONAN: Even though you're not. So you could look at yourself in a new way.

Mr. JENNINGS: Exactly.

CONAN: That change of identity, that change of style, you quote Anatole Broyard, a writer for The Times in the past who also had prostate cancer.

Mr. JENNINGS: Right. Right. He has a wonderful book that came out about 20 years ago called "Intoxicated by My Illness." And Broyard, who ended up dying of prostate cancer, he said that a serious illness demands a new style. And so I agree with him. And so my new style is wearing this buzz cut.

CONAN: And do you wear it with hobnailed boots or bass legions?

Mr. JENNINGS: No, it depends. You know, I have my, I have my boat shoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: But, you know, I feel like my classic outfit these days would be, you know, hiking boots, jeans and a rugby shirt.

CONAN: Now, there's another aspect of that, which is the person you now see in the mirror looks very different from the person you see in all those photographs you've had of, well, the previous 50 years.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. I think one of the things about any serious illness and certainly cancer is that you do, or I did anyway, after going through the treatment and being where I am right now is I really do feel transformed in a lot of different ways. And I think, you know, sometimes we need to call on these, you know, these personas that we have within ourselves to get on with our lives.

CONAN: I guess the most cliched version of that would be we realize how short life is and that we have to take advantage of every single day.

Mr. JENNINGS: Absolutely. And I know it is a cliche, but it's absolutely true. You know, the most important moment is the one that you're living in right at this moment.

CONAN: And there's another persona - my friend, Robert Lipsyte who had cancer, wrote a book about it. He called it "In the Country of Cancer," your - he told us that I could get a passport with that diagnosis.

Mr. JENNINGS: Mm-hmm. It's true. I mean, the - one of the things that happens is that I've felt that I've been paired to something very essential, and the buzz cut really compliments that idea of becoming your essential self.

CONAN: Must've caused a few double-takes at first, though.

Mr. JENNINGS: Oh, sure. My, you know, my wife detests it. My, you know, my sons think it's pretty cool. And, you know, people who are used to me with my kind of, you know, old, kind of, Glen Campbell mop of hair, they don't quite know how to take it.

CONAN: We're talking with Dana Jennings, an editor at the New York Times who's got prostate cancer and wrote about it in a column that he calls, "With a Buzz Cut, I Can Take Care - I Can Take - I Can Take On Anything." I'll get that right sooner or later.

And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And Michael is with us from Lone Tree, Colorado.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hey. How are you doing today?

Mr. JENNINGS: Hey.

MICHAEL: I was diagnosed with lymphoma back in 2001. And the chemo did most of my hair in, but as I was walking around with straggles, I decided to - whatever that cheap movie Bruce Willis was in - embrace the horror, and go ahead and go with the number one-half. And I've been wearing it ever since. I even tried an earring. And, you know, I'm a fairly conservative guy, you know? I was a lawyer, I'm a businessman and I just - I completely relate to the empowerment that the change of identity and attitude has, and it carries me today.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I'm curious, one of the things I've found is that, you know, on that day when I get the buzz cut I feel very energized. Do you have that sense?

MICHAEL: I - well, first of all, if I don't get the buzz, I look like an old guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: So I feel energized because I figured my wife likes the way I look a lot better.

Mr. JENNINGS: Okay.

MICHAEL: That's my energy. And you know what, it - now, I didn't - I don't think I stared down death like, you know, Lance Armstrong did or a lot of other people did. You know, lymphoma is one of the more curable forms of cancers, as such that it is.

Mr. JENNINGS: Right.

MICHAEL: But I think it really puts into perspective the daily tribulations that you encounter, whether through work or family. And it allows you to step back and go, man, you know, it's not so bad. It could be worse.

Mr. JENNINGS: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And Michael, you're doing well?

MICHAEL: I am. Thank you.

CONAN: Let me ask an important question, do you run up big suntan lotion bills now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: You know what, I'm not looking for skin cancer, of course not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Just wear a big hat.

MICHAEL: That's right. Oh, I see what you're talking. I thought what you meant is am I now tanning myself.

CONAN: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, I…

MICHAEL: There is a complete explanation.

CONAN: I meant, does the buzz cut force you to use suntan lotion on your head.

MICHAEL: Oh, you know what, it actually does. And I have to - I have a whole collection of hats that I carry around in my different cars because my, you know, my son plays baseball and he's outside all the time during spring. And so, yes, I'm very mindful of that now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, Michael. Stay well.

MICHAEL: Great. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. JENNINGS: Good luck.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Steve(ph), and Steve's calling from St. Louis.

STEVE: Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hi.

Mr. JENNINGS: Hi.

STEVE: Hi. I just wanted to let everybody know, all the men that are worried about prostate cancer, is that it can be an adventure. I had it about 11 years ago, had a prostatectomy, and it was fun. I didn't…

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I'm not sure how much fun it can be…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: …but it's certainly is an adventure.

CONAN: Prostatectomy means they took it out, Steve?

STEVE: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Fun in what way?

STEVE: Well, I had great support. My fiance visited me. There I was lying at a, you know, in the hospital after the operation, not knowing whether I would ever make love again. And here she comes and she wears the sexiest underwear she could imagine.

CONAN: Right there in the hospital room.

STEVE: Right there, yeah.

CONAN: And let me ask, did it work?

STEVE: Eventually, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: I can guarantee you, it wasn't working there in the hospital room.

STEVE: But not in the hospital room, no. But it…

CONAN: The spirit was willing.

STEVE: The spirit was willing, yes. And that kind of support is great. And I, you know, I had a great doctor, I had - the recovery was interesting and exciting. And I had - and I - only one moment of pain. I didn't go through chemotherapy. It was just a prostatectomy. And, you know, I learned - for a while I learned new kind of romantic techniques, and that was fine. That expanded horizons and…

CONAN: Steve, I think we're going to keep your call on hold until TALK OF THE NATION late night.

STEVE: Okay. Okay.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

Mr. JENNINGS: Thanks.

STEVE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Nice to hear from you. We're talking with Dana Jennings, an editor at the New York Times who blogs about living with cancer on the New York Times at nytimes.com/well. And he wrote the article, "With a Buzz Cut, I Can Take On Anything." He's with us today from his office in New York City.

If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I almost forgot the system cue there. Dana, let me ask you a question. One of the interesting things in your column was little research showed that shorn hair is something that has, well, a cultural history.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. I mean, it was a very personal decision when I decided to get the buzz cut. But when I was thinking about writing this piece, I realized that what I did wasn't so unusual. And really, often people during times of trauma, in transition, in transformation will - they'll cut their hair.

Just, you know, today, I received a comment from a woman on my blog, still responding to this piece about the buzz cut. And she talked about how 10 years ago she had had a stillborn child, and she found that by cutting her hair off that some emotional mechanism gets set in place. And it allowed her to weather that terrible emotional trauma.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Tom(ph). And Tom is with us from Dead Camel, Nevada.

Mr. JENNINGS: Wow.

TOM: Yeah. Well, that's where the (unintelligible) require tires on your roof. I live out off the grid. On the hair one, I've gone exact opposite. A year ago, February, the doctor said he was amazed that I was still alive because I was supposed to be in hospice. And just last week, he told me no prognosis would still have me alive at this point.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: And I've tried to handle this like the old theories of Judo - let the weight of my opponent do the damage.

And I've had some - I've got lung, I've had a brain tumor removed. And I - they call it cancer of the everything.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: And I try to handle it with humor as much as possible. And in fact, the newspaper editor of the Nevada Appeal, former newspaper editor, is setting up a blog site for me, and I'm not a computer literati at all. In fact, I just see everything (unintelligible). He's setting up a blog site, just now getting started, it's going to be called "Camping with Cancer."

At the moment it's at campingwithcancer@wordpress while we haven't have it pulled together yet. But I live off the grid, I pump my own water, I cut my own wood. I've got two dogs to outlive and some paperwork to take care of, but I could peacefully go. I'm content with my lot.

Mr. JENNINGS: Mm-hmm.

TOM: I spent the first winter out here with just candles and a woodstove, no radio, no little computer, none of that.

And when you spend time by yourself without background noise, you get either comfortable with yourself or not, you know? And I'm very, very forgetful. In fact, I kind of have forgotten six of my five ex-wives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: But I actually take this time that I've had with this cancer and these surgeries to really look at myself and look at the world. And I'm content with it.

CONAN: The judo analogy, Tom, to some degree that's anthropomorphizing the disease itself.

TOM: Yeah. It is. It is. It's - well, I see it more of - sometimes it's like coyotes or wolves circling my campfire at night, they're getting close. But it was a weird diagnosis - prognosis the other day - the doctor just flat told me. He's over in Reno, a good doctor. The - for the last two years the prognosis would not have put me alive right now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: And I'm actually, I'm doing pretty good. I don't drive and I walk with a couple of canes, but I'm alone here for 10 days in a row and I've got - getting ready to boil water outside to come in and wash dishes with and listen to the wonderful radio show.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

Mr. JENNINGS: It's good to hear that you're getting on.

TOM: Well, yeah. It's bizarre. It's - the doctor said he had never - he heard of something like this before, but he'd never seen it. And I'm not, by any way, a religious nut. I'm on the spiritual end of things, but I feel like I have a purpose out here, it's to convince one person they can keep on going.

Nevada Cancer Institute uses me as an example to younger people about what you can do if you just do it. And, I'm not in much pain. My mental confusion even gives me a laugh…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: I saw a garage sale sign at the laundromat and they were advertising things like glass dragons, and the next line down said she-elves. And I figured that had to be something to do with "Harry Potter" or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: And I turned to my friend that took me to the laundromat when I pointed that out, he says, Tom, that's shelves.

CONAN: Yeah. I had that similar problem walking past a coffee shop. And I had to ask them, what are to-go sandwiches?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: I…

Mr. JENNINGS: It's a delicacy.

CONAN: It's a delicacy.

TOM: I can understand that. I can understand that. And what's the name of your blog, sir, so I can…

Mr. JENNINGS: I appear on a blog called Well, and it's on nytimes.com.

TOM: Well.

Mr. JENNINGS: So it's nytimes.com/well.

CONAN: Tom, good luck to you.

TOM: Oh, I have the world's best luck.

Mr. JENNINGS: All right. Good luck.

CONAN: So long.

TOM: Take care.

CONAN: And Dana Jennings, you too.

Mr. JENNINGS: Thank you.

CONAN: Dana Jennings is an editor at the New York Times. And as you just heard, he blogs about his cancer at nytimes.com. You could find a link to his article and blog posts on our Web site, at npr.org/talk.

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