Support from fans, friends for anchor

Jennings responds on TV and Web

April 30, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Anchorman Peter Jennings, in a statement read last night on ABC World News Tonight, shared with viewers his feelings about his battle with lung cancer and expressed gratitude for the support he has received from fans and friends. The 66-year-old anchorman announced on the April 6 newscast that he had received the cancer diagnosis and shortly thereafter began treatment.

"Thousands of you have spoiled me rotten with your attention in the last couple of weeks," Jennings said in a statement that was read on air by Elizabeth Vargas. "So many experiences have meant something special. A woman in my building who is a cancer survivor showed up at my front door so that we could see that bald really is beautiful. She's right."

By allowing his feelings to be expressed on air, Jennings gave viewers an unusually personal glimpse of what it is like to have the disease as well as offering what may be solace to cancer patients, said support group leaders.

"What we see in Peter Jennings is a role model," said Suzanne Brace, executive director of HopeWell Cancer Support in Lutherville. "Whenever someone like that goes public, it gives others permission to talk about their cancers. It also offers encouragement and courage. People think, `If he can go public with his employers about his cancer, maybe I can, too.'"

Jennings offered a further update on his treatment yesterday in a letter posted on the Web site.

"Yesterday, I decided to go to the office; I live only a few blocks away. I got as far as the bedroom door. Chemo strikes," Jennings wrote. "Do I detect a knowing but sympathetic smile on many of your faces? You knew this was coming."

Jennings went on to describe notes and messages he had received from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Hamilton Jordan, former chief of staff in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

In a note, Specter told the anchorman, "the only way to get through chemo is to work your way through it."

"He's a tougher man than I am," Jennings said.

Jordan sent Jennings a book titled No Such Thing as a Bad Day. "He's had cancer four times. He tells me, as have many others, that's when it gets really bad, it will get better. Whew!" Jennings wrote.

"I won't soon forget an encounter as I was leaving the hospital. A middle-aged couple was going into the building and as they passed me, I heard my name and turned. The woman stepped right in my face and said, `Me too. Lung cancer.' Instinctively, immediately, we gave each other a hug ... a real hug ... and went on our respective ways knowing that we had been strengthened by the connection."

That kind of testimony from a public figure like Jennings can make a "huge difference" in peoples' lives, Brace said last night after hearing Jennings' remarks on the newscast.

"I was thinking back to when Betty Ford first went public with her breast cancer, and what a difference that made," Brace said. "This does give people a way to say, `Me too.'"

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, which attributed 160,440 deaths last year to the disease. Jennings has not anchored the newscast since April 1. Vargas and Charles Gibson, co-host of Good Morning America, have substituted for him.

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