Blogging through cancer
“Anyone who’s been in the role of patient can attest to the way it changes how you see yourself,” Suleika Jaouad ’10 wrote in a recent column published in The New York Times.Jaouad, a 23-year-old writer, was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago, only shortly after graduating from the University. In between undergoing rounds of chemotherapy and working toward recovery, Jaouad writes a regular column in The Times, and previously wrote for The Huffington Post, about her life with cancer.
Beginning to write about her experience with cancer was not easy, she said.
“I’ve always loved to write, but I never thought I’d be writing about cancer,” Jaouad said in an email.
For more than half a year after her diagnosis, she was unable to write about her experience. “I was in shock, I’m pretty sure,” Jaouad said. “I had no perspective. And it felt too personal and too painful to share my story with the public.
“But there came a time after many months of isolation that I missed a community … I didn’t want cancer to be a secret, but it had slowly become one, in a way, by not talking or writing about it. It was time to share — to write, for a public,” Jaouad said.
Jaouad pursued her interest in journalism at the University, taking journalism classes and eventually winning the Edwin F. Ferris Prize for her work in a journalism class, “Writing About War.” Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York and one of Jaouad’s former journalism professors, recalls one of Jaouad’s pieces on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict for his class as “remarkably fresh and insightful.”
According to Cambanis, Jaouad decided to write about one of her classmates, an Israeli girl who had been wounded in a suicide bombing in Israel. Jaouad wanted to expand the article by finding the family of the suicide bomber in the West Bank.
“Through her sheer persistence, she managed, over the course of couple of months, to actually find the mother of the suicide bomber and interview her by Skype,” Cambanis said. “And she ended up producing this really, really powerful and perceptive and moving piece about these characters.”
Jaouad’s blog, “Secrets of Cancerhood,” was picked up by The New York Times. Since then, her articles have triggered a slew of responses from readers through Twitter, Facebook, email, comments and other avenues.
“It has been an outpouring, and I attribute that to both the prevalence of cancer and the difficulty in talking openly about cancer,” Jaouad said. “It’s humbling because I know that my articles are merely a trigger for this massive cancer community yearning to communicate.”
She added that the ability to use social media has been therapeutic for her.
“It has allowed me to engage with a community while I’m isolated in a hospital room,” Jaouad said.
In one of her blog entries, Jaouad reflected upon maintaining her identity and remaining herself, while doctors and nurses controlled so much of her life and treated her as just another body that they had to care for, she said. “I had crossed over into a new land, the land of ‘patient.’ And with every step I was feeling less like Suleika,” she wrote.
In another piece, she described her world as a waiting room. “Disease infects not only your body but your relationship to the past, present and future … When mortality hangs in the balance, daydreaming about the future, one of life’s most delicious activities when you are young, can be a frightening exercise,” she wrote.
In the entry, she continued on to describe how, in the days before receiving a bone marrow transplant, she felt an immense amount of pressure and self-consciousness to decide how to make the most of each moment of time.
According to Jaouad, in her writing she strives for “honesty and authenticity of my experience above everything else.”
“I’ve found that a lot of the things being written about cancer try too hard to see the bright side of this situation,” Jaouad said. “I know that cancer patients want the real as well as the bright. They want the ugly along with the uplifting. Because that’s real.”
Cambanis follows his former student’s blog and noted that the posts are about more than just cancer.
“These are stories about Suleika and her life with cancer, and I think that’s part of what makes them remarkable and so readable,” Cambanis said. “What she’s doing here with her writing about cancer is a really old and difficult task of being confessional without becoming maudlin or sentimental, and I think that’s the hardest thing for a writer to do, especially if you’re writing about something that is inherently personal.”
The style and format of Jaouad’s writing in her columns vary. Occasionally, she organizes her thoughts into a list, as in a recent list titled “10 Things Not to Say to a Cancer Patient.” She said that she tends to tell her story, then zoom out to discuss the more universal aspect of her experience.
“I’m always thinking about who I might be writing to,” Jaouad said. “That’s my favorite part of this experience, because one of the worst things about disease, it seems to me, is being alone with it.”
At the University, Jaouad majored in Near Eastern studies, with certificates in French and women and gender studies. For her senior thesis, Jaouad traveled to Tunisia to conduct interviews with Tunisian women to document how they transitioned to independence and gender equality.
Her thesis, “From the Patriarchal Family to the Patriarchal State: The ‘Woman’s Question’ in Contemporary Tunisian History,” won the Suzanne M. Huffman Memorial Prize, among other honors.
Jaouad’s thesis advisor, L. Carl Brown, professor emeritus in Near Eastern studies, said Jaouad was one of the top thesis advisees he has worked with in decades of teaching. “She just did a splendid job of creatively tackling that subject … with an empathy for all parties concerned,” Brown said.
Prior to her diagnosis, Jaouad was planning to expand her research to include post-Arab Spring women in Tunisia.
“You rarely hear about women and the Arab Spring in the news,” Jaouad said. “But every day women there are working to make sure their rights and their vision for the future are incorporated in the ‘revolution.’ ”
“Now I’m writing about cancer, a different kind of revolution,” she said.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story indicated that Jaouad writes a regular column for The Huffington Post. In fact, she used to write for The Huffington Post but now writes exclusively for The New York Times. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/04/27/30804/