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Beat the Press 

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
A Most Indelicate Subject
It was 1968 and Larry Hatfield was frustrated. He was working for UPI in Washington, but the news agency wouldn't send him to report from Vietnam. "They kept promising and promising. I got fed up and quit," he says. It was the night Richard Nixon was elected.

He hitchhiked to California through a cold winter. "It was right after the Summer of Love," he recalls. "I was very much against the war, and San Francisco seemed to be the place where things were happening." He eventually got a job reporting for the Marin Independent Journal; he can remember the date he got fired -- Jan. 7, 1970 -- with an understandable exactitude. He'd refused to cross a line of striking printers.

He was eventually taken on by the Examiner, where he's been for the succeeding 28 years, the last decade or more as chief rewrite man. He's now in the newsroom daily at 5 a.m., preparing to write or rewrite the paper's main local stories.

Two Sundays ago, he wrote an unusual piece for the Examiner op-ed page. It detailed his thoughts after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Its wan humor and unblinking tone were memorable.

"Because of its boondocks location and the size of the involved machinery," he wrote, the prostate is "an indelicate subject."

He proceeded to delicately describe the biopsy process: "That involves shooting a needle -- six times -- into the prostate, a walnut-sized gland involved in sexual potency, testosterone, bladder function and other important things. It's situated, for those of you who haven't figured it out, behind the penis, in from the rectum, below the bladder, above the perineum."

The test came back malignant. Hatfield detailed his unappetizing treatment options: surgery, chemotherapy, something called cryotherapy (which in-volves freezing the prostate), or something called brachytherapy (which involves injecting radioactive pellets into it). The two main potential side effects of any of the treatments are impotence and incontinence -- both, Hatfield noted drily, "of considerable interest."

The alternative's worse. As a reporter he'd witnessed executions and visited crime and disaster scenes. "I've seen bloodied and peaceful bodies lying in cold alleys and warm bedrooms," he wrote. And both of the 56-year-old Hatfield's parents died of cancer -- in their 50s.

He also did some reporting, finding out that while breast cancer and AIDS kill about the same number of people per year in the U.S. as prostate cancer, the government devotes only a fraction of the amount of research dollars to the latter disease. He also discovered that in the Examiner, for example, mentions of it are infrequent -- except in obituaries.

Hatfield's not the first person in the world to call attention to prostate cancer, of course; Timothy Leary died of it, and Bob Dole, Arnold Palmer, and Norman Schwarzkopf, among others, have been active spokesmen against the disease. And prostate cancer does get talked about in the major magazines. But that doesn't make it easy to talk about on your average big-city rewrite desk. Hatfield's laconic prose communicated something more: It was a moving portrait of a guy in his 50s taking a look at mortality.

"To start with, I wrote it just to collect my thoughts on where I was going, and all of that," Hatfield said in a recent conversation. "I find that sort of thing therapeutic. When it got done, I kind of liked it. I offered it to the editorial page, and they put it in the paper."

The pervasiveness of the disease surprised him. "I think one in five California men will have either prostate cancer or serious prostate problems. That's pretty shocking, I think," he said.

The response to the column? "It's been tremendous. I've gotten dozens of letters and calls, primarily from other people who've had it, or their spouses."

And around the office? "I've gotten a lot of good wishes; it's kind of nice. I don't think I've ever been included in quite as many prayers, according to what I've been told."

In the time since he wrote the piece Hatfield's decided to opt for brachytherapy, the injection of radioactive pellets. "It seemed less invasive than surgery, which is the more popular option," he said of the decision. "I'll probably have to write about it again; a lot of people have asked me." We hope he doesn't have to.

Fifth and Mish
The Chron's new book editor is David Kepin, until two weeks ago a senior editor at Los Angeles' Buzz magazine. He's replacing Pat Holt, who after 16 years in the position will devote herself to reviewing. The 34-year-old Kepin grew up in SoCal, went to Yale, and did time at the L.A. Daily News and the daily and weekly Variety. He's also been a regular book reviewer for the L.A. Times and Salon. His plans for the section? "It's a little early yet."

Bill Wyman can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Beat the Press, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; or via e-mail at

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Bill Wyman


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