Dana Jennings interview, the world’s most famous patient blogger

Dana Jennings writes what is arguably the world’s most famous patient blog about his treatment for prostate cancer.

Just to be clear, I don’t have any statistics about how many readers he and other patient bloggers have. I believe his blog is the most widely read and best-know patient blog because of the number of comments he receives and its prominent location in the New York Times Health section, itself widely read.

ComScore found that more than 123 million Americans visited newspaper sites in May and the New York Times led online newspapers with more than 32 million visitors and 719 million pages viewed during May 2010.

As an avid reader of his blog and an admirer of his eloquence, I spoke to Dana on June 18, 2010 about why he started the blog, how he writes it, and how it has helped him through his prostate cancer.

Lisa: How did the idea of writing a blog first come up?
Dana: I have been a working journalist since 1980. In October 2008, I was working on my 6th book and having trouble writing because I was obsessing over having cancer. At the same time I couldn’t find what I wanted online about prostate cancer even though there is a lot of information out there. So I thought I could write about this. I wanted to give the topic a distinctive voice and be honest, not just about prostate cancer, but about cancer and about being ill. I was concerned about my family’s reaction, but I spoke to my wife and sons and they were fine about it. A colleague put me in touch with New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope who responded positively to the idea. It happened quickly after that.

Lisa: What has been most interesting for you about the process?
Dana: The two most interesting things about it were the extent to which writing it gave me an opportunity to find out what I thought about different aspects of having cancer, and the reaction to my blog, which stunned me. I but didn’t expect so many men to respond that I was articulating things for them or women to respond that I was saying what they wanted their husbands to say.

Lisa: How many readers do you have?
Dana: I don’t really get a count of readers for each post but some, like My Brief Life as a Women, have had hundreds of thousands of views. And a few posts have over 600 comments. I knew my blog had become well-known when Whoopi Goldberg made fun of me on The View.

Lisa: Do you read all the comments?
Dana: I read most. New York Times Op-Ed columnist Tom Friedman gets hundreds of comments and I suspect he doesn’t read all his comments, but it’s a different type of writing. I am a big fan of the 2-3 sentence comment, but even the long ones I skim. When I read my blog comments, I see that they really like me.

Lisa: Are any comments helpful or supportive?
Dana: It is helpful knowing that I’ve been able to help people, that I made it easier for people to talk about and go through this process. I am happy to read the advice in comments but I’m a strong-minded person and have my own ideas. It cracks my wife and me up when people suggest crazy cancer treatments.

Lisa: Are there gender differences in who reads or comments on your blog?
Dana: More women read my blog than men. Men and women respond differently: women tend to be more insightful and understand the emotion I’m trying to convey in the blog while men are more focused on data: name, rank, serial number. Men are more emotionally stunted in our society and think they have to be tough.

Lisa: Have you shown your blog to your doctors?
Dana: My oncologists have looked at it off and on, also the radiation technicians. They appreciate what I have to say. But I don’t write for them because my obligation is to my readers and fellow cancer patients.

Lisa: Is your blog edited?
Dana: My primary job is as an editor, so my posts go through a few drafts and then Tara Parker-Pope reads them and she may have some edits or changes which I look at. Finally a copy editor reviews it.

Lisa: How does the New York Times promote your blog?
Dana: It appears on the Health page with my picture, sometime highlighted at the top. Some posts have appeared as a most emailed article, which itself increases visibility, just like when a book appears on the bestseller list.

Lisa: Do you read other patient blogs?
Dana: I don’t. I spend time reading every day, but I read the New York Times and I read books. I try not to lose myself on the Internet. I’m 52, a dinosaur from age of print, although my sons are amused that I blog.

Lisa: Can you offer any advise about reading other people’s blogs or starting your own solely based on your own experiences?
Dana: I really don’t because I had the benefit of working here at the Times. But, if someone is obsessed about their situation and wants to write, then they should go ahead. It’s a big ol’ Internet.

Lisa Gualtieri is Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and blogs at her self-titled site, Lisa Neal Gualtieri.

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