Leroy Sievers' Cancer Conversations For more than a year, Leroy Sievers has been blogging and commenting on NPR about his battle against cancer. A new Discovery Channel documentary tells his story and that of the people who have responded to his blog.
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Leroy Sievers' Cancer Conversations

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Leroy Sievers' Cancer Conversations

Leroy Sievers' Cancer Conversations

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A little more than a year ago, Leroy Sievers began a conversation with these words: Death and I are hardly strangers. Ever since, he's been writing about his battle against cancer for MORNING EDITION and for a blog on npr.org. What's remarkable here, and what we'll talk about this morning, is the response from people around the country like these.

Ms. RUTH WHITE: My name is Ruth White and I'm from Nashville, Tennessee. Last week, I was in Goody's. And while standing in the checkout line, some woman was holding up the line for some unknown reason and I thought about saying, take me now, I have cancer.

Mr. BOB MAIMONE: My name is Bob Maimone and I live in Kent, Washington. I've gotten past, why me? It's obvious to me that I had no control over it. I couldn't pick my grandparents who had colorectal cancer or my parent who had breast cancer.

Ms. NANCY CLARK: My name is Nancy Clark and I live in West Trenton, New Jersey. For those of us in Stage 4 disease even remission is a gift that we know will one day be taken back. So the trick is to enjoy the heck out of the gift while we have it and when it's…

INSKEEP: Those are some of the people who've joined an online conversation with the journalist Leroy Sievers over more than a year now. He's the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary this weekend by his longtime colleague Ted Koppel, and he joins us now.

LEROY SIEVERS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What's makes you want to talk about your condition?

SIEVERS: When I first started out, a lot of people thought I was nuts. It's like, why do you want to talk about it? Because for the most part people don't talk about it. And the more I thought about it, it's part of my life. People that care about me, the people around me, have a right to know. And also I just don't think I could keep something that big quiet. And it's okay to talk about it.

INSKEEP: So how do you start a conversation, then?

SIEVERS: This is my story. And when I look at the people that write into the blog, a lot of them don't respond necessarily to something I write. They simply tell their story - this is where I am. On the other side there are people who write and say, boy, my mother, father, husband, wife never said a word. I didn't know what they were going through. And that's really what drives me to talk about it.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to one of the stories that has come out on your blog. The woman's name is Marianne Dalton. She is a ballet teacher and former ballerina in Rochester, New York.

Ms. MARIANNE DALTON: Last night, looking into the mirror, I thought I saw an alien. It was moi. Completely hairless the past four months, I'm now missing my eyebrows, eyelashes, and my fingernails are turning black. All with being breastless and scars. It was Valentine's Day. I know vanity is striking my image on the most romantic day of the year, but I completely lost it when I hopped into bed last night and my husband told me how beautiful I was on Valentine's Day.

INSKEEP: Marianne Dalton is one of many people who've written into a blog kept up by Leroy Sievers, a journalist and regular commentator for MORNING EDITION.

Once the floodgates are open to stories like that, what is off-limits? What are the things that you don't say when cancer survivors talk to one another?

SIEVERS: I don't think there's anything off-limits. I mean, you talk about sort of the inner workings of your body. You talk about things you don't talk about in polite society. You know, it's a whole different world - it's a different world. We call it cancer world.

INSKEEP: Do you ever talk about what someone's chances might be?

SIEVERS: Sure, very directly. My first question when I was told I had a brain tumor was, how long? And the prognosis was pretty bleak. I've been told any number of times, you know, probably a couple of months. And we really thought, you know, this summer was probably going to be it for me.

INSKEEP: When you first learned of that diagnosis, brain cancer, was there something that you decided you wanted to run out and do, or at least thought about?

SIEVERS: There really wasn't. It was a shock. I had had colon cancer five years before. I was clean for four and a half years and then I got a new tumor in my brain. One of the things I think that bothers people sometimes when I say it, I'm at peace with this process. I've had a great life. I've traveled the world and all that. I'm not eager to die, I don't want to die, I'm not ready to die. But I'm okay with the process.

INSKEEP: Why does that bother people?

SIEVERS: Because I think they think it sounds like I'm giving up. And I'm not. You deal with death on a daily basis. And it doesn't - it scares you still, but in some ways it loses some of the mystery, maybe.

INSKEEP: Have you learned something from the many cancer survivors you've met on the blog?

SIEVERS: Oh, sure. A lot. The obvious one, and it is really obvious, is life is precious. And that sounds like something on a Hallmark card or something like that, but you still appreciate each day more than we did before.

INSKEEP: Well, on that note, let's listen to Bob Maimone of Washington State. He's reading a comment that he posted on you blog.

Mr. MAIMONE: A friend of mine saw me at the garden store with a cart full of perennial plants. He noted that buying perennials instead of annuals must be a sign that I'm planning to be around longer than an annual plant. You bet. I want to be able to look at every one of those plants I place in my garden and think back on when I used to be a Stage 4 colorectal cancer patient.

INSKEEP: Leroy Sievers, it's springtime. Are you gardening?

SIEVERS: No, I'm not. I'm not a good gardener. I move the trash and things like that, that's my role. But I didn't for the first - I don't know - six or eight months, I bought no clothes because I didn't think I was going to need them. I actually wrote about it on the blog and got a big response. I went out and bought a pair of shoes, which was a big step, I mean, in the same way he was talking about planting the perennials. In some way, you're sticking your thumb in the eye of the cancer. But it's a gesture of hope that I'm going to be around long enough to use them.

INSKEEP: Can you joke about your cancer?

SIEVERS: I can. I don't think people like to hear it. One of the first things someone wrote in and said, you know, at toll plazas people with cancer should have a special lane so we can go through because we don't have that much time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEVERS: It's okay to laugh about it. It's okay to joke about it, but it makes people really uncomfortable. I think people are so afraid of appearing insensitive or saying the wrong thing or something like that. And sometimes as the patient, I want to laugh about it. I mean, it is, you know, it's absurd.

INSKEEP: How far ahead do you look now?

SIEVERS: I don't know. I'm in a strange situation now. First of the year my chemo had failed, tumors were growing. And then through radiation and something called radiofrequency ablation we've killed them all. Now some of the blood tests indicate that there's still something in there, but my active tumors are dead. So I used to joke I needed a job, not a career. And now I'm in the position to think, boy, I need to get my career back on track. So I'm starting to gradually push that back to maybe a couple of years.

INSKEEP: Well, Leroy Sievers, thanks very much for sharing your story with us.

SIEVERS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: His friend Ted Koppel began interviewing Sievers for a documentary to air after his death, but Sievers will be around when it's on the Discovery Channel on Sunday. Clips are at npr.org.

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