On April 4, 2012, Suleika Jaouad said she was sitting alone in her hospital room in the bone marrow transplant wing when she heard a man in the hall selling newspapers. She requested a copy of The New York Times, and when she turned to page D5, she saw an article titled, “Grown, but Still in Cancer’s ‘Tweens.” The byline displayed her own name.
“I don’t really have any words to describe what it felt like in that moment to see my name for the first time in print,” she said to an Emerson audience Thursday night. “But it gave me hope.”
On the one-year anniversary of publishing her first column in The New York Times, 24-year-old Jaouad spent the day speaking to the community about surviving cancer, sharing her story through social media, and living a life, interrupted.
She said she posted her first article next to her blood count charts, and that doing so made her hopeful about a future that still felt so uncertain.
Jaouad stood 12 months later before a crowd of more than 50 in a lecture hall in the Walker Building, sporting an edgy, short hairdo with artful hair tattoos. Originally contacted by assistant professor Dr. Angela Cooke-Jackson, Jaouad agreed to come to Emerson to talk about her column, “Life, Interrupted.”
While introducing Jaouad to the audience, Cooke-Jackson said the honesty and integrity with which Jaouad shared her story compelled Cooke-Jackson, who teaches intercultural and health communications courses, to follow her column.
“She’s made a huge impact on my life, and she has made a huge impact on the lives of those who follow her,” Cooke-Jackson said at the event.
Shortly after moving to Paris following her graduation from Princeton University in 2010, Jaouad said she discovered she had myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 22. In her first column, Jaouad writes, “Having a life-threatening disease in your 20s carries a special set of psychological and social challenges. It defies our very definition of what ought to be. Youth and health are supposed to be synonymous. If only I could sue my body for breach of contract with the natural order of things.”
Because her column focuses on having cancer in her 20s, Jaouad said that speaking to college students was fitting.
“It’s strange because just three years ago, I was exactly where you guys are today,” Jaouad said in an interview with the Beacon before her talk. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was worried about job applications and student loans, etc. And what’s been interesting with regards to my column is discovering that my ‘life, interrupted’ moment, which happened to be cancer, has universal themes that apply to anyone who’s going through something.”
This universality is what lecture attendee Mehak Anwar said connected her to Jaouad’s messages. During her speech, Jaouad said, before cancer she was the type of person who had five, 10, and 25-year plans, but when the diagnosis came, she was forced to put her life on hold. Jaouad said that the uncertainty of her future taught her to be present, and to be still. Anwar said she personally identified with this idea, and said she thought many Emerson students could.
“I also think I have a five-year plan, and it made me aware that that kind of thing can be interrupted, and how to deal with that happening,” said Anwar, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major. “She actually took advantage almost of the cancer, it sounded like, and turned it into something good for herself.”
The main focus of Jaouad’s speech was to answer the social media question, “To share or not to share?” — a question she especially struggled to answer within the first few months of her diagnosis.
“There was this widening gap between my online identity and my real self,” she said to the audience. “But at the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out of the cancer closet, so to speak, in such a public sphere. It felt trivializing, and way too public to share something so personal with my 1,500 Facebook friends.”
But eventually she made the leap, posting a picture of herself on Facebook with her long, curly hair shaved off. Soon, she had started her own blog, and about a month later, she was contacted by an editor from the Well section of The New York Times about writing a weekly column.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer; before I got sick, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and I was hoping to report on the revolutions taking place in the Arab Spring,” she said in an interview. “At some point, in the first six months after my diagnosis, it dawned on me that I could report from the frontlines of my own revolution, the one taking place inside of me.”
Within a few hours of her article being published, Jaouad said she received countless emails, messages, and tweets from readers who were going through the same thing she was.
“That, to me, is the most powerful thing — these connections that you’re able to make with these complete strangers all over the world, and that you’re able to really talk to and get to know in some way, even if its only via social media,” she said in the interview.
Many members of the audience who spoke up to ask questions during the Q-and-A session were cancer patients or were battling chronic illnesses. Questions ranged from how much cancer had become a part of her identity, to what it felt like to finally share her experiences, to whether or not she still kept a five-year plan — to which Jaouad answered that she tries to take life one week at a time.
Jaouad said that she has been trying to reach broader audiences by speaking about topics related to cancer, from the misinformation about the way chemotherapy affects a woman’s ability to get pregnant, to pain for cancer patients during sex.
“I’ve really made it my mission to advocate for young adults with cancer and to write about these about issues like sexual health or fertility that might be uncomfortable to talk about, but [are] incredibly important,” she said. “Media like Twitter has given voice to the previously voiceless. It’s allowed people like me to discuss topics that were previously taboo. I think one thing is for sure—sharing is here to stay.”
Anwar, who is also an editor-in-chief of the online Emerson publication Isis Magazine, said she took Jaouad’s perspective on social media as an inspiration.
“I thought it was really important for someone in our generation to look at social media positively, because a lot of people criticize it, and a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s changing everything for the worse,’” Anwar said.
Jaouad said that for college seniors struggling to find work and be independent, focusing on how to pull inspiration from hardship can be the best way to make it through.
“[My diagnosis] felt like a major interruption that I might never be able to recover from. That is, until it dawned on me that maybe cancer could be an opportunity, in a sense,” she said in the interview. “What’s helped me is trying to understand that there’s always a way to turn a life, interrupted moment into an ‘Aha!’ moment.”