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The Dose

Welcome to The Dose, which tackles the business and economics inside the turbulent world of health care and life sciences in Indiana. Your host is John Russell. To contact me call 317-472-5383.

Writing about my own cancer

November 4, 2016

I could use an editor on this one. There are so many ways to write this.

How about the traditional hard-news lead? (IBJ reporter John Russell has Stage 2 bladder cancer, his doctor told him last week. He has a high chance of survival, but the treatment will be rigorous, involving several months of chemotherapy, followed by vomiting, hair loss and major surgery.)

Probably too strong. How about something a bit more relaxed and narrative? (John woke up on Oct. 18, full of energy. He started the day with a four-mile run, and then got dressed and drove to the west side for coffee with a source, where he picked up three good story ideas he knew his editor would love.)

No, now it's too bland. No tension. Throw in some irony, at least. (John got to the office around 11, and discovered the company was offering free flu shots. He got in line immediately, congratulating himself for taking a step to avoid fever, chills and nausea in the weeks ahead.)

Nice. Now add some foreboding. (After getting his shot, John settled at his desk and checked his email. Just a day earlier, he had asked a PR contact at Eli Lilly for some information about the drug company’s latest cancer research. With the news of a “cancer moonshot,” it might be a good time to do a big take-out on Lilly’s research.)

Have you always been this wordy? How about something short and sweet, like clickbait? (After a few hours of reporting, John got up to take a bathroom break. He noticed heavy blood in his urine. You’ll never guess what happened next.)  

Never mind, clickbait doesn't work here. Just get back to the story. Maybe add some rising tension. (John didn’t have time to think about the bleeding. At that moment, he just knew he had three big stories to write this week. He was upset that a medical issue might get in the way.)

You know what this story could use? A tick-tock reconstruction. (It was 4:30. John left the restroom and walked back to his desk, 38 steps away, past the advertising department, past the art department, past his editor's office. He sat down in his cubicle, piled high with notebooks and printouts. He noticed the voicemail light blinking on his phone. He checked his email. Four new messages had arrived. Deadline was an hour away for graphics and photo assignments. John was starting to feel overwhelmed.)

It’s time to fold in some context about early discovery and early treatment. (Medical research shows conclusively that the earlier one gets diagnosed and treated for a tumor, the better the outcome, blah blah blah…)

Now a little more personal stuff. (John tries to stay healthy. He has run 10 marathons and 22 half marathons. Just a few months ago, he completed his first triathlon. He has never had a serious medical issue or surgery. He gets a physical every year. Two years ago, he got two important screenings: a colonoscopy and an upper edoscopy. Results were good all around. Unfortunately, there is no screening procedure for bladder cancer.)

OK, enough context. Back to the story. Stay with the human drama. (John drove home and braced himself to tell his wife, Colleen, something was wrong—he just didn’t know if the problem was small, medium or large.)  

That’s some pretty stilted writing. Good thing you’re a business reporter, not a feature writer. Try again. (Tens of thousands of Americans are depleting their savings and declaring bankruptcy to pay for medical treatment. Meanwhile, the U.S. spends more on health care than other high-income countries but has worse outcomes, studies show.)  

What studies? What reports? (We’ll fill that in later. I bookmarked something on this a few months ago. I just have to find it.)  

Get back to the story, already. Add some poignant stuff here. (As John walked through the garage, he noticed the new Cannondale bicycle he bought a few months ago. He had taken a few 30- and 40-mile rides and recently was toying with the idea of riding the Hilly Hundred with friends.)

OK, but do the readers even care about this guy? I hear people yawning and turning the page. Who is he and why should anyone care? (John has two sons, who need their father.)

Wow, that escalated fast. (Also, he has been a journalist for 30 years. He has written deep features and investigations on all aspects of health care, from Alzheimer's disease research to conflicts of interest in the pet medicine industry. He feels a need to prove he can still find good stories, even though it’s been two years since his last big awards.)  

This is getting mawkish. Get back to the story, and speed it up. It’s starting to drag. (John entered the house and asked his wife to sit down. He told her what happened at work. She told him to call the doctor right away, to see if he should go to the emergency room. John got on the phone, explained the problem. After a few questions, the doctor told him not to bother with the ER, but please stop by his office first thing in the morning.)

This is where you need to wrap up lots of information really fast. Readers don’t have much patience. How about a list? (Five things John learned the next day: 1 – His doctor took one look at his urine specimen and told him to get to the hospital “right now, immediately” for a CT scan and blood work. 2 – At the hospital waiting room, John noticed that the doctor’s written instructions to the radiology department said “STAT!” and “Hold patient and call with results.” He began to feel uneasy. 3 – After CT scan, a nurse approached John, holding a phone. It was his doctor, who was calling to say the radiologist found a “large growth” in the bladder. “I’m going to set you up with a urologist for tomorrow. We have to make sure it’s not cancer.” John flinched. 4 – The urologist’s office called a few hours later. “Please come in first thing tomorrow morning.” 5 – The next day, John met the urologist, who was very kind and knowledgable, and then tortured him for 20 minutes with all kinds of tools that John felt violated international treaties on human rights. John let out a few yells. "Tell my wife I was brave in battle," he said afterward.)

Wait, what was that last thing? (It was a procedure called a cystoscopy. Let's just say a doctor put things where things normally don't go. If you want to know more, you can Google it.)

Are we almost done? Any more action? (John went to the hospital a few days later to get a 6-centimeter tumor removed. Two hours later, he was back in his room with a few tubes in him. The doctor said to get some rest and come back to his office on Friday for the pathology review.)

Should we try for some more narrative writing here? (John and Colleen sat in urologist's exam room, bracing for the news. They looked around for something to read. The wall was covered with information on erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer. The shelves were full of latex gloves, gauze and swabs. Then suddenly, the urologist entered the room, wearing a forced smile. A nurse came in behind him, carrying an armful of printouts and diagrams. “Oh damn,” John thought.)  

What do you call it when you try to compress a lot of information into a few sentences? Isn’t that a thing? (The next two hours were a blur. John and Colleen walked from building to building, meeting nurses, technicians, and then an oncologist who said things such as “increasingly aggressive chemotherapy regimen, starting next week.”)

This is all good, but you need some other stuff. What about a graphic on survival rates, or a fact box on bladder cancer? What about some mug shots? (That’s all coming. There’s lots of ways to tell this story. We have time. Let’s see how it turns out first.)

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