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Mary Susan Herczog dies at 45; wrote with poignancy and wit on having breast cancer

She chronicled her experience in articles for The Times and on her website, CancerChick.com. Herczog also wrote several travel books on Las Vegas and a post-Katrina guide to New Orleans.

February 19, 2010|By Valerie J. Nelson
  • Mary Susan Herczog, 38, with her dogs, Hayley, left, and Bix in 2002. She said her articles in The Times were called "brave and inspirational" by some and "obliviously and freakishly cheerful" by others.
Mary Susan Herczog, 38, with her dogs, Hayley, left, and Bix in 2002. She… (Los Angeles Times )

Mary Susan Herczog, who reacted to being diagnosed with breast cancer at 33 by documenting her subsequent journey with astonishing clarity and humor in The Times and on her website, has died. She was 45.

Herczog, who also wrote travel books, died Tuesday at her Silver Lake home of complications related to the disease, said her husband, Steve Hochman.

"Yes, gentle reader, it, and I, are back," she wrote in a 2002 update in The Times.

" 'It' would be the breast cancer I had diagnosed (I forgo the verb 'battled' since, to my way of thinking, all I did was lie back and let stuff be done to me) in 1997 and thought banished forever by July 1998, chronicled right here in a monthly series called 'brave and inspirational' by some and 'obliviously and freakishly cheerful' by others."

In The Times’ Health section -- and later on her website, CancerChick.com -- Herczog wrote about her invasive breast cancer, often leavening the poignancy with sardonic wit.

"People were definitely shocked by her writing," her husband said. "They'd say, 'How can you put so much humor into something so scary?' But . . . they would see she was making it less scary . . . that you could be this real person and have cancer."

She joked about planning to explore her "inner drag queen by wearing wigs," then said: "But . . . hearing someone tell you that removing your breast is a possibility . . . well, pass the Kleenex."

At the end of her first round of treatment in 1998, Herczog called Julia Child her "new heroine": "She had a mastectomy in the 1950s. The math alone -- 40 years' survival -- is heartening, but what's more, you know what she's been eating since then? That's right. Cream sauces."

When it was clear that Herczog's third go-round with cancer would be her last, her Jan. 6 CancerChick post was laced with whimsy but got straight to the point: "My goose, she is cooked."

She was born March 31, 1964, in Santa Monica to Richard and Claudia Herczog and grew up in Brentwood. Later, her father was an executive with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn.

At UCLA, Herczog earned a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's in film. While a freelance journalist, she worked in script development for a film company and became a freelance script reader.

Through the local music scene, she met Hochman, a longtime pop music writer for The Times and other publications. They married in 1995 at a crawfish boil in Louisiana's Cajun country.

New Orleans was a favorite destination for the couple, who often attended the Jazz & Heritage Festival and who bought a home there.

As a travel writer, Herczog produced a number of books for Frommer's, including several on Las Vegas and a well-reviewed post-Katrina guide to New Orleans.

On another website, Plucky Survivors See America, she and her best friend, Rick Garman, who has a chronic illness, documented annual cross-country road trips "that always lifted our spirits," Garman said.

In 2007, she published a novel, "Figures of Echo," about an 11-year-old who discovers that her widowed father is not her biological father. The story was adapted into a Lifetime movie, "Custody."

Several years ago, Herczog began an intellectual quest unrelated to her illness, her husband said, and started working toward a doctorate in the philosophy of religion and theology. She called it "God school."

Three days before she died, she was awarded a master's degree in the subject from Claremont Graduate University in a small ceremony at her home.

In addition to her husband, Herczog is survived by her mother, Claudia, of Carpinteria; a sister, Deborah, of Stoddard, Wis.; and a brother, Rich, of Culver City.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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