Breaking the News About a Cancer Diagnosis It's among the worst news people can imagine getting: a diagnosis of cancer. Then, before the news is fully absorbed, family, friends and colleagues must be told. Commentator Leroy Sievers describes how he broke the news about his cancer.
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Breaking the News About a Cancer Diagnosis

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Breaking the News About a Cancer Diagnosis

Breaking the News About a Cancer Diagnosis

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scan the headlines of the Inquirer, or almost any other newspaper, and you will find one truth in journalism, that bad news makes headlines more often than good news.

As a television journalist, commentator Leroy Sievers is used to bringing viewers bad news, and now he's become an expert in breaking bad news about his own health to family, friends and colleagues.

LEROY SIEVERS reporting:

How are you? That's one of those throwaway lines, just part of the ritual. You don't really need to answer.

But I was at a party recently, and when a woman I know reasonably well asked how I was, I froze, because the honest answer would have been, not too well. Cancer, a lot of it, chemo, makes me sick most days. Prognosis not so good. Not exactly party chit-chat.

By now, most of my friends know about my cancer, but not all. In that moment, I didn't know if this woman knew, so what to say? I hesitated for only a second or two, although it seemed like much longer. Then I said something vague like, pretty good, how are you? To this day, I have no idea if she knew I was sick and was really asking how I was or if she was just being polite.

When I was first diagnosed I called some very close friends and e-mailed others. I hated doing that. It just seemed too impersonal. But to be honest, I was having trouble getting through those early conversations. It was bad news. Bad for them to hear. Bad for me to say.

You can't really back into something like that. So I just sort of bulled my way through. Listen, I have some bad news. A number of friends broke down in tears, and I found myself comforting them, which seemed an odd role reversal. Some people even have trouble saying the word cancer. When I had it the first time, about five years ago, I was getting a CAT scan, and the technician said cheerfully, Well, we're looking for C-A today. I had no idea what she was talking about. Turned out she couldn't, or wouldn't, say the word cancer.

But it's just a disease. We have to be able to talk about it. That first time I was still working at ABC's Nightline, and I had to hold a staff meeting to tell everyone at once. That was tough. There were tears as I looked around the room at my friends and colleagues. I tried not to make eye contact because it seemed important to me to not break down. I needed to let them know that it would all be okay.

These days I pretty much have it down to a science. I have different versions of my story. A really honest, detailed one for close friends who I want to know the truth, all of it. For people I barely know but who are kind enough to ask, I have a version that's pretty vague. I'm not sure they want to know everything. I don't want to share it all with everyone either. And then I have a couple of versions in between.

It's still difficult to tell people for the first time. I believe honesty is important, but there's honesty and then there's honesty. I tell people as much as I think they want, or that they can handle. And I worry about becoming boring, that cancer is the only thing I talk about. I still want to talk about Iraq, politics, the latest plot twists on 24, and the craziness of American Idol.

The other day, a friend said, If I didn't know you were sick, I wouldn't know you were sick, and that's fine with me. I have things to do, a life to live. Cancer's not an excuse for quitting, so sometimes when people ask, how are you, the answer's just, I'm okay.

INSKEEP: Leroy Sievers' blogs and podcasts about his experiences with cancer on our website. If you want to follow his story and share your own, just go to npr.org/mycancer.

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