Dispatches from his war with cancer

Published June 24, 2006

It started with a simple observation: "My doctors are trying to kill me."

A few minutes later, former Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers had taken National Public Radio listeners on a wrenchingly honest tour through his struggle with brain cancer and chemotherapy - courtesy of a May 11 commentary that noted how the potent treatment might kill him before it killed off his cancer cells.

Now, NPR has given Sievers a more regular pulpit for his emotional essays, launching on Monday a monthly series of commentaries for its Morning Edition program, a weekly podcast and a daily blog; all under the heading, "My Cancer" www.NPR.org/mycancer.

"I've gotten more personal response from this than anything I've done for Nightline," said Sievers, 51, who worked on the ABC newsmagazine for 14 years - the last four as executive producer - reporting from more than a dozen wars and disaster zones. "I've always been the guy behind the scenes. I'm used to telling other people's stories - I'm not used to being the story."

The idea for Sievers' new showcase came from NPR programming executives, who were looking for material they could spread across a multitude of platforms - from audio podcast downloads to Web log entries and radio commentaries. Already the outlet offers more than 50 different podcasts, sparking more than 25-million downloads.

Before his most recent cancer diagnosis, Sievers had earned attention with evocative audio columns for NPR on his efforts helping Hurricane Katrina survivors with the Red Cross and hunting perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide with human rights groups.

But a December diagnosis revealed the brain tumor and the spread of colon cancer to his lungs. Sievers then began developing pieces on his health struggles, taking his work for NPR to a new level.

"It's something every one of us can relate to," said Bill Marimow, vice president of news at NPR. "He's a top notch journalist doing pieces about something that's truly a matter of life and death. So whatever transpires is going to be poignant, important and something people will follow."

Sievers achieves this effect mostly through brutal honesty. "After a while, you forget what it feels like to not feel sick," he noted in the May commentary. "My friends are all going on with their lives: new jobs, new relationships, new plans. And in the dark hours of the night, God help me, I resent that so much."

His commentary Monday will center on a tough topic: How do you tell others you're dying?

"People who are close and want the truth, get the truth," he said, noting his only regret about doing the commentaries is that some friends found out about his illness through the radio. "Other people, I tell them just enough to get through the moment. A lot of people can't even say the word cancer ...(but) it tends to take over your life, and not talking about it is really tough."

Sievers left Nightline in November 2004 amid a shake up on the show, with plans to spend a year teaching and working with nongovernmental organizations before returning to journalism. But as he was gearing up to look for work, a growing problem with slurring his words led to a checkup and a jarring prognosis: six months to live.

"One of the things you face is quality of life vs. quantity of life," he said. "Do you stay on chemotherapy and feel (bad) all the time? Do I get those new eyeglasses I need? I haven't bought clothes, because I'm not sure I really need them."

Now, he's buoyed by a 13-month prognosis (and a friend with similar cancer who has survived 10 years), along with his new NPR job and a producing gig at the Discovery Channel - where ex-Nightline anchor Ted Koppel also works.

Through it all, he hopes to keep doing what he has done for a lifetime -- telling important stories that move people.

"The daughter of a friend of mine (with cancer) told her mom, 'That's my story'... which was nice," said Sievers, about public reaction to his commentaries. "I've covered 14 wars and seen dozens of people die, but it's been something of a revelation to face my own death. People say 'You're so courageous' - but, really, I have no choice."

--Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.