|Reporting Live from
the Cancer Front
On his NPR blog, a seasoned journalist is chronicling his cancer experience. His medical team is hanging on every word.
For 25 years, Leroy Sievers witnessed the ravages of war and reported haunting tales for several major TV networks. In 1994, as executive producer of ABC’s Nightline, he covered the genocide in Rwanda, narrowly escaping death on several occasions. In all, Sievers has covered 14 wars, most recently with stints in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was embedded with newscaster Ted Koppel with American troops.
Now Sievers, 51, is engaged in a wholly different kind of war—against colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Once again, he’s relaying stories from the trenches, but this time the battle is playing out at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and to an audience of thousands who listen to Morning Edition on National Public Radio, where Sievers muses about life with cancer and maintains a blog.
A day-by-day chronicle of Sievers’ experiences with cancer, the blog, called “My Cancer” and posted on npr.org, arose from a conversation with an NPR news director at a dinner party last year. It began in June with these words:
After that day, your life is never the same. That day is the day the doctor tells you, You have cancer. Every one of us knows someone who’s had to face that news. It’s scary, it’s sad. But it’s still life, and it’s a life worth living. “My Cancer” is a daily account of my life and my fight with cancer.
The blog and the responses from thousands of cancer patients and their families have not gone unnoticed by Sievers’ care team at the Kimmel Cancer Center. “I learn everything I know about the real stuff of cancer from patients. This forum gives them a chance to open up,” says oncology fellow Christian Meyer, who, along with medical oncology director Ross Donehower, manages Sievers medically.
Sievers, who lives in Potomac, Md., was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. Surgery and chemotherapy left him cancer free for four and a half years. But then one day his face started to droop. He was rushed to a D.C. hospital, where an MRI revealed a brain tumor.
His friend Ted Koppel came to see him. “You’ve got to transfer to Johns Hopkins to get the best possible care,” Koppel told him.
Sievers and his partner, Today Show executive producer Laurie Singer, took Koppel’s advice, and they’ve never regretted it. “This may sound like made-up PR stuff,” said Seivers in an interview, “but I trust the surgeons, doctors and nurses here completely. They’re wonderfully qualified, efficient and direct. To the extent it can be, it’s been a great experience.”
The brain tumor was successfully removed in 2006, but doctors also found metastases to Sievers’ spine, for which he received radiation. He then had three tumors on his lungs, which have been treated using a technique called radiofrequency ablation. In February, Sievers described his apprehensions on his blog:
This morning I’m going in for my second radio frequency ablation (RFA) procedure, to kill another tumor in my lung. I know what to expect now, and I’m really not nervous. The worst that can happen is a collapsed lung, and I’ve been through that before. And this time, I know to ask for pain medication before I leave the hospital.
But there’s one more thing. Before I have the RFA, we’re going to do a new set of CT scans. It’s been a while since the last ones. So I come face to face again with that fear that haunts us all. Will there be something new? While I’ve been knocking off the existing tumors one at a time, have new ones snuck in and started growing? Will they crack through the wall of my newfound optimism? Will they remind me, in the most graphic way, that I still have cancer?
I admit it. I am nervous about that. I’d like to postpone going back on chemo as long as I can. I like not being that sick. But one white spot on the scans can turn all that around.
The day after his RFA, Sievers shared good news: No new tumors. But days later, he suffered a delayed collapsed lung and was hospitalized for a couple of days. Sievers had his third RFA on March 13.
Every once in a while, on Weinberg 2, five oncology nurses huddle near a computer to read Sievers’ postings. Says Pierse Byrnes, Sievers’ lead oncology nurse, “He can articulate the way cancer patients feel but who don’t have the strength or ability to express it.”
“From the beginning,” Meyer says, “Leroy was willing to have a frank discussion about the quantity and quality of life he can expect. We got through a lot of barriers that can, understandably, take months for most other patients to overcome.”
The six-foot-four, seasoned journalist may write wrenching copy, but he is perpetually jovial and gregarious, a friend to many “regulars” in waiting areas. “The first time I met him,” says phlebotomist Heather Wright, “I was reminded of Paul Bunyan—a big guy in a plaid shirt. Mr. Sievers always jokes with me. It makes it easier for me to poke him.”
Sievers still puts in full days from home, now writing and producing for the Discovery Channel. Writing about cancer is not quite as thrilling as traveling the world, he acknowledges, but “it’s what my life has become. It’s a far cry from the battlefield. When you’re shot at, you run. It happens in an instant. Cancer is slower. You go through this long process of trying to hold it off as long as you can.”
The blog has been surprisingly therapeutic, says Sievers. “For all those years, I watched really bad things happen to other people. In an odd sort of way, this blog gave me the opportunity to do something good. It’s turned into a community.”
Through it all, his spirit remains resolute:
I don’t look to the future with despair. I still am, in spite of everything that’s happened, an optimist. I believe that whatever comes up, I can cope with it and live a good life while I’m at it. … This is all part of the adventure. And I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
On April 29, at 9 p.m., the Discovery Channel will air “Living with Cancer,” a two-hour special featuring interviews with Sievers and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.