A sense of humor helps, Lauren Terrazzano says, when you're dying of cancer.
If there's a heaven, the newspaper columnist wrote recently, she plans to have a drink with John F. Kennedy Jr., and then "thwack him on the head for flying that night in the fog."
And, if she somehow winds up in hell, she wants to meet the guy "who invented the tape that keeps your IV in place. I will proceed to wrap him in it, like a mummy, and then peel it off. Slowly.
"I hope he is very hairy."
Described by colleagues as a tenacious, hard-nosed street reporter, Terrazzano has drawn praise for sharing her own story in "Life, With Cancer," a column she has been writing in the Long Island newspaper Newsday since October. Diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago at age 36, she has had her right lung removed and has undergone extensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
In a recent column, she announced that doctors have given her two to three months to live.
"The disease has advanced despite all of these treatments and we really don't know what the future holds," said the reporter, who covered the JFK Jr. plane crash, the TWA Flight 800 disaster and many other high-profile stories in the decade she has been with Newsday. She continues to cover news for the paper when she's able, in addition to writing the column that runs every Tuesday.
Terrazzano recently celebrated her first wedding anniversary. She lives with New York Times reporter Al Baker in Manhattan.
In her columns, Terrazzano has written about the inappropriate things people say to cancer patients because they don't know what else to say, and about breaking the myth that people with cancer are heroes, "when really we're just like everyone else." She has taken shots at the tobacco marketers, opined about aspiring first lady Elizabeth Edwards' battle with cancer and written about the stress the disease has on loved ones.
And despite the fact that so many aspects of cancer are depressing, she insists there is room for humor.
"I use humor sometimes as a device to make the writing easier and to put people at ease," said Terrazzano, who is seen in a favorite photo casually propped against a tree, her piercing blue eyes smiling and lush dark hair framing her features. In another, she sits on the ground, blades of grass poking up around her bright red shoes.
"My goal was to tackle the taboo subjects of the disease that the mainstream media often fails to do," said Terrazzano. "We so often cover the news aspects of cancer: the scientific breakthrough or even the sob story, yet there are so many other avenues that go unexplored."
The response to the column, Terrazzano said, has been "staggering."
"I expected response on a local level, but I've gotten at this point thousands of e-mails from readers, some as far away as Saudi Arabia."
"Readers mostly thank me for having the guts to say what they'd like to say, and for 'getting it' from the perspective of a cancer patient. Nothing makes me happier than when someone clips out my column and puts it on their refrigerator," she said.
Karen Joy Miller, a breast cancer survivor who heads a support group in Huntington, on Long Island, said her organization is buzzing about the column.
"She has lung cancer, but it's not about one type of disease," Miller said. "Her column has increased awareness to the challenges that we all face. It allows a lot of people who are reticent to tap into their own feelings and insecurities."
Terrazzano has also won professional accolades, including the top prize in the science/health reporting category of a contest run by the Silurians, the oldest press club in the United States.
When Newsday cartoonist Walt Handelsman won his second Pulitzer Prize last week, he said Terrazzano's columns frequently beat his work as the "most e-mailed" item on Newsday's Web site.
"I really draw strength from her," he said.
Terrazzano said she was sitting in a doctor's waiting room once when she observed another patient reading her column.
"Lauren's struggle, unfortunately, is not unique," said Michael Seilback of the American Lung Association of New York. "Her column has really hit home with a lot of people."
In the column where she announced her bleak prospects, Terrazzano reflected on life, and death.
"I have seen people like my grandfather live simple but happy long lives. He died when he was 93. On the opposite end, in my job as a reporter, I have seen 3-year-olds die at the hands of abusive parents.
"Nothing really makes sense when it comes to death."