Making Sense of Science and Ourselves
A veteran journalist navigates facts and fears and shares her journey of survival.
When my dad read the first piece I ever wrote for a national publication—an article on planning children’s parties—he asked, incredulously, “They pay you for this?” His comment has stuck with me for nearly four decades because it foreshadowed my career as a journalist in three ways.
First, while writing magazine articles is far more challenging than it might look, it is still a fun way to make a living. Second, I was headed to the “soft” side of writing—such as service journalism and human-interest features—rather than hard news, investigative journalism, or science writing. Third, I could always count on my dad to keep me humble. For much of my career in magazine journalism, this was true, with the majority of the articles in my first three decades as a writer focused on home and family topics, largely for Meredith Corporation magazines. I loved writing about houses and the families within them. And, yes, through it all, my dad kept my head an appropriate size.
In my 24 years as a magazine journalism professor at Drake, I worked with students who had broad interests: parenting, health, fashion, human rights, technology, music, the environment—basically anything a magazine might cover, which is just about anything. Many of the students who wrote about science ultimately pursued successful careers in science-related magazines, a move I applauded, knowing full well that those dense topics were for them, certainly not for me. I was no scientist.
Then science became personal.
In 2005 I was diagnosed with a unique kind of breast cancer that confused me. It was not fueled by hormones, so it did not act the way I had always heard breast cancer acted. And the doctors said it was aggressive—so I was frightened as well as perplexed.
I reacted the way most journalists would: I researched. I looked for the facts, for the real story of this disease, and I had no choice but to dive into science headfirst because that’s where the story was.
My background as a journalist was essential in my exploration and gradual understanding of the disease I faced. My education and training had taught me where to dig, what sources to trust, how to go deeper and farther into the information. I hit the internet and the old-fashioned library with real books. I accessed major medical journals, such as JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine, through Drake’s library.
And I enjoyed one of the great benefits of being a journalist—interviewing experts. I talked to researchers at Harvard, UCLA, and the Mayo Clinic. Together we walked through their studies, with the scientists explaining nuances, clarifying details, and appreciating my deep interest in the topic.
Research was tricky because the disease itself—triple-negative breast cancer, or TNBC—had barely been named; the term was first used in the medical literature in 2005, only a year before I was diagnosed. Much of the language was foreign to me: HER2/neu, adjuvant, immunohistochemistry, histologic. And so came more research, more websites, more books, more conversations.
I learned about the specific behavior of TNBC, how chemotherapy can be especially effective against it, about lifestyle factors, about the disease’s diversity. I also learned that too many media reports were off base, using fearful words such as lethal, deadly, and aggressive that painted the disease as hopeless, which is far from the case.
The journalists writing these pieces were quoting expert sources—cancer researchers—but these experts were aiming their comments at medical professionals rather than patients and the general public. A good portion of the actual audience—the patients with TNBC—got caught in the middle of a muddle of negative misinformation. Many were terrified they would die, even if their doctors had given them an encouraging prognosis.
I knew most of them would survive—the research showed that. So I began writing. I wrote first for two breast cancer publications but found that most magazines wanted articles on broader topics, not specifically on TNBC. However, I knew there was an audience out there that wanted and needed details and could benefit from what I had learned and from the positive perspective I had gained from that knowledge. And so, several months after I finished treatment, I started a blog, Positives About Negative, dedicated to providing accurate and hopeful information about TNBC and other forms of hormone-negative breast cancer.
The more I posted, the more I learned about the subject matter and the audience, about the disease and the women dealing with it. (Men do get TNBC, but the great majority of those diagnosed are women.) I learned that my readers were smart, that they had also done research. I also learned that they wanted a go-to site for TNBC information, that they appreciated humor, and that they craved hope.
And I learned something about myself—that science was something I could tackle, that, as a journalist, I could interpret this convoluted material in accessible language. And, as a journalist, I had a responsibility to do so.
One of the aspects of journalism that makes me the most proud is its ability to make sense of the complex, overwhelming information we face every day—be it about political shenanigans, economic effects of public policy, environmental changes, or any part of the sea of details that threatens to drown us. How could we understand it all without the writers, editors, and designers in newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and digital media who do the research and explain it for us?
Ultimately, my blog readers began encouraging me to write a book. I had already co-authored a magazine textbook: The Magazine from Cover to Cover, with Sammye Johnson from Trinity University. The first edition had been a grueling task, taking three years and a boatload of stress. And Sammye and I had just finished the second edition, with both of us getting breast cancer as a bonus. Committing to write another book was a dubious decision.
Yet I settled down to write. And after a year, I had a book—a dry and highly academic book that I hated. The profiles of TNBC survivors were scant, my own story brief. But bless my wonderful editor’s heart; she read the initial draft and told me what was lacking: my personality and the personalities of the 11 women I profiled. “Add your voice,” she encouraged, giving me permission to write a book that was both hard—with more endnotes than I hope to endure for the rest of my life—and soft.
Through it all I had a nagging thought: Why am I the one writing this book and not somebody with more research credentials? I finally realized the answer: Nobody had yet written a book on TNBC—no researchers, clinicians, nobody—and it was needed. And if a scientist did write such a book, it would be significantly different from mine; it would not have the same heart and soul. Researchers, I had learned, did not always understand how patients with this disease felt nor the type or depth of information they needed.
I let readers of my blog choose the name: Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: Hope, Treatment, Recovery. “Hope has to be in the title somewhere,” one reader said. And the word “survive” insisted others. The book came out in October 2012, and I held my breath for criticism from the scientific community. It did not come. In fact, Clinical Oncology included it as one of its featured picks and now offers the book in its online store. Two library journals gave it the thumbs up. Surviving was regularly one of Amazon.com’s top ten breast cancer books in its first six months, and the Kindle version has been a best seller among oncology titles.
Most important, my primary audience embraced it. Several tell me they’ve read it more than twice. Others thank me for the detail and the endnotes and the suggestions for further exploration. Readers appreciate my own story, coming in and out of the book briefly, making it personal but, ultimately, more about them than about me.
I still absolutely do not consider myself a scientist, but I have learned that science is not foreign territory. We live it every day. And the more we understand of it, the more we understand ourselves. I am astonished by how much I’ve learned, and I feel privileged to use my journalism background to help others.
I do wish my dad had lived to see this book because I think he would be proud of what I have done. Heck, I am proud of what I have done. This time, though, I am the one who is a bit incredulous.
Patricia Prijatel, GR‘79, the E.T. Meredith Distinguished Professor of Journalism Emerita, is the architect of Drake’s magazine program, which she headed for 25 years. When she retired in 2007, she was director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Today she remains involved in the Master of Communication Leadership program and the E.T. Meredith Center for Magazine Studies.