taking care of business

Writing about cancer and stuff.

I’ve been on a two-week stretch of writing about people with cancer. I know you want to keep reading this post now, right? It’s been breast cancer mostly, with ovarian cancer thrown in, liver cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

During those weeks I also, maybe coincidentally, was reading John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars, which is about kids who have cancer (lung cancer and osteosarcoma).

Aside from partially convincing myself I have a stomach tumor – which would explain my wider waistline, which in no way could be the baby weight I’m still carrying from my son who was born over a year ago – I’ve enjoyed the interviews and also been a little emotionally exhausted by them. Which feels ridiculous to even mention since anything I’m feeling is nothing compared to the exhaustion (emotional and otherwise) of someone who has cancer.

I’m also feeling my way through the best way to interview people who’ve gone through something so life-changing. You have to be sympathetic but still keep sight of the story you need to tell. I’m not an emotional person generally but I got choked up during an interview with an ovarian cancer survivor when she started talking about her mom, who had died of ovarian cancer when the woman was in her teens.

I haven’t done human interest reporting since college, but in some ways I feel more prepared now than I was then – and with a heart that breaks a little more easily. After going through the death of my son three years ago, I feel better equipped to talk to people weathering personal storms, even though there are as many kinds of grief as there are grievers.

Whew. Even so, lots of times lately I can’t help comparing myself to other journalists who are writing hard news, uncovering corruption, being political watchdogs, covering complicated issues. Their work is so important and, to me, intimidating. But then I can’t help but think: regular people going through extraordinary circumstances are important, too. We crave stories about people who are like us and facing something we pray we never have to – how do they do it? Maybe all journalism comes down to the same thing: that people matter.


One thought on “Writing about cancer and stuff.

  1. I was on the “tearjerker beat” for a while in Tuscaloosa, and that was the first time I moved from “I write because I like it” to “I also write because sharing stories can affect people’s lives.” One of the most emotionally charged stories I’ve ever written was about a 4-year-old girl who had a brain tumor, whose grandfather died in a wreck. The story focused on how the family was coping with these multiple challenges, and I later wrote a follow up examining how common the girl’s tumor was and how the community was supporting the family.

    I was proud of myself, after the first piece, for not crying during reporting that day. It was challenging, and it left a lasting impact on me. However, I wept years later when the little girl died and her parents thanked The Tuscaloosa News in her obituary. That experience forever changed how I view my work. While there’s absolutely room for beauty and entertainment in our stories, they can also affect people’s lives, whether it’s by sharing their stories or helping others understand the challenges people face.

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