Leroy Sievers has been blogging about his impending death for more than a year now. Each time that it’s come down to a few months, something bizarrely wonderful has happened, and he’s made it through. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002, after a routine colonoscopy, and it later metastasized to his brain and his lungs.
Leroy was the focus of a new documentary called “Living With Cancer,” with Ted Koppel, that premiered tonight on the Discovery Channel. The two are long-time pals. Lance Armstrong and Elizabeth Edwards were also featured. Leroy has been a journalist for 25 years and now has a show and a blog on NPR. Throughout much of the filming of this special project, neither Leroy nor Ted thought that Leroy would be alive to see it actually air. Leroy has bluntly and honestly chronicled his cancer experience, almost matter-of-factly. Near the end of the broadcast, there was a glimmer of the much deeper emotion that lies just below the surface. Ted asked Leroy’s long-time partner (a woman whose name I forget already, and it isn’t clear to me if they’re actually married) why she was hesitant to appear on the show, and she indicated that it was simply too painful for her and that she didn’t want to break down on national TV. As she spoke, the cameras panned to Leroy, and if you didn’t know better, you might think he was just sitting in stony silence, a journalist so cynical he was untouched by his own process of dying. But it was there, that cauldron of emotion that he fought to contain.
When I listened to Leroy tonight, I became an instant fan. Here’s an excerpt from his blog:
In the end, I come back to the way I looked at cancer the first time. It's just something that happened to me. It's not who I am. But the things I have learned from it? They have become a huge part of who I am, and for that I'm grateful, as strange as that may sound.
I always think it’s absurd when people insist that cancer is the best thing that ever happened to them. But Lance Armstrong said that very thing in the documentary tonight. For the vast majority of people, cancer is not the best thing that has or will ever happen to them. It hurts. It makes you throw up a lot. Some people, including kids and women, go bald and lose their eyebrows and eyelashes, too. A lot of families have serious financial problems or even go bankrupt. It makes you tired a lot. It makes you forgetful. Some people don’t have health insurance to cover their treatment. Or they don’t have access to the best treatment and the best providers.
Lance Armstrong is truly an exception, yet he’s often held out as the target all cancer survivors should strive to be like. Elizabeth Edwards seems so much more down to earth. She immediately acknowledged that many people don’t have access to the kind of care she has had, and that not everyone has a loving, capable and supportive partner. She acknowledged that she gets depressed, and she said it’s her obligation to make sure that the public sees those darker moments of living with cancer. Indeed, we need to see all of its dimensions, especially the ones we may not want to know about.
I’ve been living with cancer for seven years now, and it’s both a big part of my life and a small part of my life. It is, however, no longer the focus of my life. Ironically, I think it would be less a part of my life if I weren’t writing about cancer issues as a journalist. But then I would not have met so many amazing people who are also on this strange, scary, interesting, crazy journey.
I think what people mean when they make comments like Lance did, and which Leroy alluded to in the quote above, is that what they learned from cancer is the best thing that ever happened to them. I just wish we could have learned this in kindergarten, along with all of the other important stuff.