Interview With Suleika Jaouad, 23yr Old Cancer Ninja and Columnist With NYTIMES

Suleika Jaouad

Suleika Jaouad, on life with cancer, Life Interrupted, and how writing happened. Image courtesy: Seamus McKiernan

‘Suleika Jaouad is a 23 year old writer, adventurer and cancer ninja‘, states her bio, in her blog, Secrets of Cancerhood. Recently, Suleika Jaouad has been writing a weekly column, Life Interrupted, in the New York Times ‘Well’ section where she chronicles her journey of being diagnosed with cancer at a young age of 23 and life thereof. A graduate from the Princeton University, currently, Suleika is undergoing bone marrow transplant and hopes to get better soon.

I had reached out to Suleika and wished her all the best from the Cure Talk team. She was gracious enough to share her cancer journey and how writing happened, with us in the first ever interview, post her cancer diagnosis.

These are her words…

Q: I have read your blogs on NY Times as well as Secrets of Cancerhood. I must say that they are perfect in explaining what you might be feeling. What first gave you the idea of writing and sharing your cancer experience?

SJ: I’ve always loved to write. I’ve filled up journals since I was a kid. But, before I was diagnosed with cancer, I often felt too self-conscious to actually show anyone my work. When I began undergoing chemotherapy last June, I tried to keep a diary, but I was just too tired to concentrate. Over time, I stopped writing altogether. Instead of being inspired, I felt beaten down. As the date of my bone marrow transplant inched closer, I began to reconsider the things that were most important to me. After more than seven months of living with cancer, I finally felt ready to share my experience — to write, for a public. As part of my new year’s resolution, I began my blog, Secrets of Cancerhood the first week of January and I haven’t stopped writing since.

Q: Your blog says that you were prescribed antidepressants initially, but you were sure that there was something else. What made you feel that your symptoms were pointing elsewhere?

SJ: My doctors interpreted symptoms of exhaustion and lethargy as depression. The more I insisted I wasn’t depressed, the more my doctors seemed to think I was in denial about being depressed. I felt deep-in-the-bone tired in a way I had never experienced before. I was sleeping too much and I was worn out after a light day’s work. Before long, I was getting different flu-like symptoms on a weekly basis and antibiotics didn’t seem to have any effect. Cancer just didn’t seem to be on my doctors’ minds. But, as I became more tired and weak, I began to imagine the worst.

Q: How much time did the final diagnosis take from the initial onset of symptoms?

It took several months. In the months leading up to my diagnosis, I was tired all the time. But my job had crazy hours, so I relied on caffeine and attributed the fatigue to overwork. One day in March 2011, I woke up with flu-like symptoms and called in sick to work. Little did I know, I would never return.

In the weeks that followed, I had various infections (kidney, urinary tract, respiratory). Antibiotics would clear them up temporarily, but after a few days I’d get a new one. At that point, doctors ran a gamut of blood tests. The results showed I was anemic and my doctor prescribed me iron pills. It didn’t raise any alarm bells — my doctor reassured me that it’s not uncommon for young women to be a little bit anemic. My doctor’s best guess was that I was “burned out” and my immune system had become compromised from exhaustion. It wasn’t until the end of April that I finally got a bone marrow biopsy, a painful and invasive procedure that doctors had hoped to avoid.

Five days later I received a phone call from my doctor saying that they had found “something,” but they wouldn’t say what. Just that I needed to come into the office immediately. At the time, I was returning home on a train from New York City — a four-hour ride. That was the longest ride of my life.

Q: You have been getting a lot of response to your NYT column from the world over. How have the responses helped you personally?

SJ: I’ve been amazed and deeply moved by the response to my NYT column. Through my writing, I’ve made many new friends and have been made aware of online communities of cancer patients and caregivers I hadn’t previously known existed.

The responses, by email or comments on my articles, have come from all around the world. It has been an outpouring, and I attribute that to both the prevalence of cancer and the difficulty in talking openly about cancer. The support and feedback I receive from my readers makes me feel excited and hopeful for the future.

Q: You are a fighter and an inspiration. From where do you derive your strength?

SJ: I am a fighter, but I don’t always feel strong. Cancer patients sometimes feel like they have to be brave or courageous. But the reality is that cancer, especially as a young adult, can be lonely and isolating — not to mention, scary. I feel afraid of what the future holds, especially considering I have yet to define my own, but also ready to take tomorrow on.

What helps me look forward? Finding positive, constructive distractions (for me, this takes the form of writing). Surrounding myself with the love of family and friends. Looking inwards and finding coping techniques such as meditation and yoga. And finally, reaching out to other cancer patients and survivors.

Cancer, especially in your twenties, presents a unique set of emotional, social, and psychological challenges. Through my blog and New York Times column, I have been fortunate to connect with other young adults who are dealing with life-threatening illness. Talking and learning more from them, has been an immense source of strength and inspiration.

About the Author