Times columnist, now cancer-free, confronts life's interruptions

by LuLu Romano / Beacon Correspondent • February 27, 2014

Suleika Jaouad writes for the "Well" section of the New York Times, and recently won an Emmy for her documentary series.
Photo courtesy of Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad writes for the "Well" section of the New York Times, and recently won an Emmy for her documentary series.
Photo courtesy of Suleika Jaouad

“I’m not going to say cancer was a gift, by no means,” said now cancer-free 25-year-old Suleika Jaouad. “However, it was a teacher in so many ways.”

On Feb. 20, Jaouad spoke at Emerson for the second time in the past year, in the Bill Bordy Theater to a group of over 20 people. She discussed her column New York Times column Life, Interrupted, which is centered around her battle with cancer. 

Jaouad said much has changed since she spoke at Emerson last year, when she had just received a bone marrow transplant. Beyond being a columnist for the Times’ “Well” section, she now holds an Emmy Award for News and Documentary, which she won in September. Jaouad has been videotaping her experience living as a young adult with cancer for the Times since the spring of 2012.

Angela Cooke-Jackson, a communication studies professor, opened the session by playing one of Jaouad’s Emmy-winning documentaries, in which she reflects on a typical day in her life.

Jaoaud was energetic and enthusiastic throughout the event. She came out with a big smile on her face and immediately joked, “Guys, don’t feel bad for me; I’m fine! I’m fine!” She then continued to tell the audience a story that she had “never yet told anyone.”

 The tale was about the humiliating feedback she received on a piece of writing she composed during her freshman year of high school. She had been given an assignment in class to produce a short fiction story. Jaouad said she was ecstatic, and she seized the opportunity to pour her heart and soul out. However, according to Jaouad, the teacher found the writing piece so absurd that she was sent to the school psychiatrist after reading it.

Her faith in becoming a writer was hindered, but Jaouad said what she learned from this experience is that there will be interruptions in one’s life. Nonetheless, she said she never stopped working toward her ultimate goal of becoming a writer. Jaouad said she believes that everyone experiences interruptions in their lives, and that is why her story of fighting cancer relates to many people.

Jaouad said when she learned that she had cancer, she felt her dream of becoming a reporter from the warzone was completely hopeless. That’s when she remembered what one of her professors at Princeton University had said: “Everyone has a story.” For the first time in her life, she said she stopped looking for outside stories, and found one within herself.

“Pursuing a career in journalism was my eff you to cancer,” said Jaouad. “Young adult cancer patients are overlooked; 70,000 young adults are diagnosed each year, yet they are the only group with rates that do not improve each year.”

Jaouad said she feels that only so much can be captured in writing, so she accepted the Times’ proposal of incorporating a video documenting her life along with the publication of her columns.

According to Jaouad, Shayla Harris, the series producer, spent countless hours filming her story along with a Times team, and decided to incorporate videos to complement her columns, which she said was the first time the newspaper had done something like this.

Jaouad said she wasn’t expecting such positive feedback. The videos reached a whole new group of people: people who are interested in multimedia, she said.

Jaouad said writing her column while fighting cancer allowed her to see what she was going through more objectively.

During the Q-and-A following her talk, two members of the audience shared their own stories with the crowd. One woman talked about how her life has recently been interrupted by her mother passing away, and the second person talked about her struggle she faced with coming out with a girlfriend.

Jaouad closed by saying she is optimistic about her final chemotherapy treatment in two months.

“Now,” said Jaouad, “I’m just focusing on the life of Life, Interrupted.”