Sievers: You can live with cancer


NEW YORK -- After former "Nightline" executive producer Leroy Sievers left ABC in 2004, he looked around for what he would do next.

Sievers, who traveled the world in his journalism career, tried his hand at humanitarian work and teaching and contributed commentaries to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." But Sievers, who had been treated for colon cancer when he was 46, learned in December 2005 that the cancer had returned and spread to his brain and lung.

It was amid the biggest fight of his life that he found his calling.

The 51-year-old has been chronicling the ups and downs after a cancer diagnosis during the past year in commentaries called "My Cancer" on NPR and, for the past nine months, in a blog that has sparked conversation among cancer patients, caregivers and families nationwide, with Sievers serving as moderator.

On Monday, that conversation takes to the airwaves with Sievers appearing on NPR's live talk show, "Talk of the Nation," where members of the online community who have contributed to the blog will talk to each other in person for the first time.

Sievers' illness also has sparked the latest documentary for Discovery Channel by his friend and colleague, Ted Koppel.

Conceived in the dark days when it looked as if Sievers wouldn't survive much longer, the documentary, "Living With Cancer," began with Koppel and Sievers sitting down and talking on camera about living with cancer and the prospects of dying. It was a little like Koppel's celebrated interviews with Brandeis University professor Morrie Schwartz that inspired Mitch Albom's best-selling "Tuesdays With Morrie." Sievers jokes that they originally called it "Sundays With Leroy."

The interviews were supposed to run after Sievers' death.

"Since that doesn't appear to be imminent, they had to change the format," said Sievers, who is an executive producer at Discovery. "It turned into a documentary about me, which wasn't my intention."

The documentary chronicles Sievers' journey and features interviews with cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and others. It also stresses the fact -- which most recently hit the headlines with the return of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer -- that you can live with the illness. Edwards will appear in a live town hall-style meeting hosted by Koppel after the May 6 premiere.

Sievers was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery and eight weeks later returned to work. He said he rarely gave a thought to whether the cancer would return. But in December 2005 he was told tumors had spread to his brain and lung, and a doctor gave him six months to live.

Sievers threw himself into treatment and the life of a cancer patient. He found that cancer was something that touched many people but wasn't talked about a lot. He calls it "cancer world."

"A lot of people live in cancer world," Sievers said. "It looks like your world but it's very different."

He has learned the benefits of talking and writing about cancer, not just for himself but also for others who feel disenfranchised or distanced from everyone else because of the disease. One message he conveys is that it's OK to talk about it, to share and above all, to laugh.

"It's just a disease. It happens to us, it's bad, I think in some ways it's more painful for the people who care about us. All they can really do is worry," Sievers said. "It's not a value judgment. It's not something you bring on. It just happens. It's going to happen to a lot of us. You try to live with it and be OK with it."

Sievers is realistic. There's no cure for his cancer, and even conventional treatment like chemotherapy sometimes isn't enough. (He learned that this year when chemo failed him; a new treatment has killed his cancer cells, though at great pain to him.) He knows that even though there's no sign of cancer in his body right now, it's no doubt lurking, too small to be noticed. He gets his next scan this week.

There's no doubt that his experience, and his willing to share, has led to Sievers making a mark outside of TV journalism. About 30,000 unique visitors read his blog every month, and podcast downloads of "My Cancer" have reached 73,000 beyond the audience on NPR's "Morning Edition."

"I spent my adult life going around the world (as a journalist) and seeing bad things happen to people: wars, famine, disease and all of that. I went and watched," Sievers said. "It has always haunted me that I went and watched, and I always wondered how can I actually do something. ... Oddly enough, this came up and it allowed me to do something good."