Tag Archives: suleika jaouad

Feeling Guilty About Cancer

15 Jun




Photo Credit: Ashley Woo

Guilt, like cancer, is a greedy guest feasting on its host. It is nondiscriminatory. We have all felt it, wondered what it was doing there, willed it to go away.

I’m aware that feeling guilty about having cancer is more than a little irrational. But when it comes to cancer, guilt is a mercurial, equal-opportunity burden that affects both patients and caretakers.

Continue reading, here.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


Keeping Cancer At Bay

1 Jun



Photo Credit: Greg Edwards

“How are you doing?” is a complicated question for a cancer patient.

Watching for the return of cancer after a bone marrow transplant is a full-time job, even when results from the first biopsy seem hopeful. Last weekend, my doctors gave me a “pass” to leave the Hope Lodge, my temporary home in Manhattan, for a few days. It was good to have a break to travel upstate to my parents’ house. Unfortunately, I got sick to my stomach during the four-hour trip and spent most of Friday and Saturday sleeping in my childhood bedroom.

But I couldn’t help thinking of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the New York City hospital where days earlier my doctor had delivered the results of my first bone marrow biopsy since my transplant. If you had asked me how I was doing last Thursday morning — crossing Manhattan in a cab on a muggy, drizzly morning on my way to receive the test results — I would have described the sense of dread welling up inside of me. The biopsy would be the first glimpse at my new bone marrow, the foundation of my new immune system, which had been “rebuilt” with my brother Adam’s healthy stem cells during my bone marrow transplant last month. Would the cancer still be there?

Continue reading, here.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.

NPR Interview

20 May

Last week I spoke with NPR host Neal Conan on ‘Talk of the Nation.’ Listen to the interview here.

Seamus took this photo of me during a brief outing to the west village this weekend.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.

Writing For Hope

29 Mar


Ten months ago, when I entered the hospital for my first round of chemotherapy, I began writing what would later be the first piece on this blog, “Good Afternoon, You Have Cancer.” In the first few days of my hospitalization, in June of last year, before the side effects had kicked in, I felt scared but ready to fight. I was bursting with creativity, ideas, and ambition about how I might learn and grow from this disease.

“We are all imprisoned in our own way,” I wrote in my diary, “but right now, in this very moment, there is, all around me, the open space to become, to create, to arrange words in an order that no human being has ever arranged them before — that is magical, that to me, is meaningful.”

But when the chemo started, my writing stopped. I spent most of the summer in the hospital. Long days without feeling the fresh air of outdoors.

The fall was supposed to be better. Outpatient chemo, my doctors proposed. It was nice being home, but the treatment wasn’t much easier. After each monthly round, without fail I ended up with an infection. Back to the hospital.

The New Year came — I celebrated NYE with my boyfriend Seamus at a beautiful B&B in Vermont. We counted down to 2012 around a bonfire, a serene moment in a year of chaos. All of a sudden the urge to write came on like a wave crashing to shore. I’ve been writing ever since, sometimes just a few minutes a day — other days it’s all I do.

As I count down the last few days before I enter the hospital this Monday for my bone marrow transplant (I’ll be hospitalized for 45 days or so), I’ve struggled with how to spend my time meaningfully, mindfully. But when I’m writing, I feel at ease. If only for a few minutes at a time. I can engage with the weighty stuff of my illness while getting lost in the creative distraction of the writing process. It’s not an antidote to the pain, but it’s a tool that’s made me feel sturdier — even, braver — during these hard times.

What started as a personal blog in January caught the attention of the New York Times. Today I’m excited to announce the launch of “Life, Interrupted,” a weekly column I’ll be writing for the ‘Well’ section.

Click here, to read my first piece “Facing Cancer in Your 20s.”

As always — thank you for your readership, love and support. Stay tuned for more updates!




Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.

10 Ways to Help a Friend With Cancer

21 Feb


If it takes a village to raise a child, you might say it also takes one to care for the sick. Cancer is at once personal and communal. Disease lives in the sufferer’s body but the experience of illness is shared, often intimately, by our loved ones. And yet, caring for the sick can feel like writing a travelogue about a country you’ve never visited. You can’t know where you haven’t been.

“What can I do to help?”

This is the sincere, often reflexive, response people have when they find out I have cancer. When I was diagnosed with leukemia last May at the age of 22, my boyfriend, Seamus, sprung into action as my CCO: chief care-giving officer, after my parents. As the news of my diagnosis spread, my friends, acquaintances — and even some strangers — formed a loving support network. It was a comforting reminder of how selfless people can be.

But while most of my friends and family would help me in a heartbeat, knowing how to help can be a daunting, even paralyzing, challenge. Over the past eight months, through seven hospitalizations and six rounds of chemotherapy, Seamus and I have sustained a running dialogue about what it means to be a caregiver and a care recipient; what it means to be in love with one another while my body’s at war with itself.

This guide to helping a friend with cancer is built from parts of our many conversations on the subject of care giving.

    1. Say “I don’t know what to say” — A cancer diagnosis can paralyze the lines of communication between friends. Some people freeze up and don’t say anything at all, while others dwell on finding the “perfect” words. If you’re at a loss for words, say so. If you have a lot to say but don’t know where to start, say that, too. Honesty rules. I’ve never felt offended by someone who doesn’t know what to say, but I’ve felt hurt by those who don’t call or write at all. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
    2. Be an equal opportunity listener — Cancer is a gloomy subject — there’s no pretending otherwise. While your instinct can be to immediately steer the conversation towards the cheerful, it’s vital for a cancer patient to feel comfortable venting feelings of fear, sadness, anger, loss, and isolation. One of the most important things you can do as a friend is to make it clear that you are willing to listen to both the good and the bad.
    3. Assess the specifics — Cancer patients are often too tired or too polite to respond to the broad question of “How can I help?” Take the lead and ask specific questions. Without being pushy, you’ll find areas where you can step in: Who is going to look after them during the day? Can they prepare their own meals? What about transportation? Are there other people close to the person with cancer who also need support?
    4. Do what you do best — Do what comes from the heart and follow through. Remember that the patient doesn’t expect you to compose a song if you don’t play an instrument. Lending a hand is easier when you do what’s in your wheelhouse. If you love to cook, drop off a homemade dish; if you’re an artist, make something to hang on the hospital room wall; if you’re an organizer, offer to gather research or to take notes during medical appointments.
    5. Take care of yourself — You hear it a lot: caregivers must take good care of themselves, too. No matter how upset or stressed out you are about your friend’s illness, it is critical to be selfish about your own health. Nutrition is important, especially because “comfort foods” beckon in times of stress. Regular exercise, even walking, is crucial for the body as well as the mind: some of the best thinking happens when your body is in motion. Perhaps most important of all is getting enough sleep. Love does, in fact, have boundaries. You must take care of yourself to be the best ally to your friend.
    6. “No need to write me back.” Since my diagnosis, I’ve been showered with the warmth of letters, emails and cards of support. These messages, filled with love and positive energy, are my daily reminders that I’m not alone in this struggle. But finding the energy to write back can feel like an herculean task. Dissolve any potential stress for the patient by reminding him or her that there’s no need to respond or write a thank-you note.
    7. Distraction is a godsend — While you should be careful joking about cancer (everybody’s sensitivity differs), some juicy gossip, a funny joke, or a good movie can go a long way in lifting someone’s spirits. Humor may feel out of place next to IV bags and bedpans, but it can be an essential counterweight to the gravity and absurdity of cancer. Don’t feel like you can’t be the bearer of good news. Bring magazines, music, stories and sunshine.
    8. Get involved in the cause — As someone who will be receiving a bone marrow transplant this spring, I am deeply moved by my friends who have signed up to become bone marrow donors or taken time to learn about my disease. Sign up to be a bone marrow donor, give blood, organize a fundraiser, or donate a sum (however small) to cancer research or an organization of your choice. It’s a gesture acknowledging that cancer affects communities of strangers as well as the people you know.
    9. “It’s time for me to go” — Long visits don’t necessarily mean better ones. Visits needn’t be rushed, but keep in mind that the sick person doesn’t have the same energy level as you do. Be attentive to signs that the patient needs to rest.
    10. I love you If there’s ever a time to tell a friend how much you care about them, this is it.

 Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.

Seamus McKiernan is an associate blog editor at The Huffington Post.

Precious Cargo

9 Feb


I’m driving to my destination — I have to get there on time — but something is wrong under the hood. The engine’s clacking. At any moment, I’m worried it’ll sputter out, run out of gas, blow a gasket. I’m driving along, wearily, like a trucker on ice.

This is the metaphor that came to mind last week when I was racing to finish an important project as my body started to falter.

Here’s what happened.

February 1st began on a high note: My dream of writing for a major newspaper publication came true (more details to follow soon)! The editor gave me a deadline of Monday morning. For the first time since my diagnosis last May, I had a project. A responsibility. For the first time in more than 8 months, maybe cancer wouldn’t be my sole job.

Just one day later, I woke up with a feeling I know only too well: deep-in-the-bone exhaustion and achy limbs accompanied by mouth sores so painful that talking or taking a sip of water makes me want to cry. The worry starts to set in. But usually no ones says anything yet.

By 10 p.m. that night I was having uncontrollable chills. My mother piled blankets onto me but nothing could stop my teeth from chattering. I was cold from the inside, not outside. She checked my temperature: 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Twenty minutes later it was up to 100 degrees. When it climbed up to 102.5 I knew the dreaded H-bomb was about to drop. “Hospital, now,” my mom said.

Getting read for an emergency hospitalization is similar to going on a very chaotic, last-minute family vacation. My parents scramble to make sure they have a place to stay, we throw our clothing and toiletries into our carry-on luggage and then pile into the minivan for a four hour drive to New York City. By the time we arrived, it was almost 3 a.m. The ground floor of the hospital was completely deserted with the exception of a few patrolling security guards. And I was furious.

I hated my body for failing me now. Hadn’t it put me through enough? The timing seemed beyond unfair. I had two days to write my piece and, up in my hospital room, I could barely keep my eyes open from all the pain medication I was on. I went to bed feeling angry — angry at the white walls of my room, angry at the hospital food, and angry at the nurse who couldn’t find a good vein in my arm for the IV and kept poking me with needles.

My boyfriend woke me up the next morning and said: “You are going to get this piece done, no matter what we have to do.” I didn’t believe him. But he wasn’t kidding around and within half an hour we had begun the slow, tedious process of brainstorming and drafting an outline. I wasn’t the most pleasant collaborator — more times than I can count, I got tired, frustrated, broke into tears, and then had to take a long nap to recover from my outburst. But somehow, we did it. Needless to say I couldn’t have done it without him, but I got the piece done.

Comparing our bodies to vessels — like cars — that carry us through our lives, seems apt up to a point but it only goes so far. In the car metaphor, you can leave your broken vehicle by the road, hitchhike, or buy a new one. But in reality, we only have one “car.” While some people believe the mind can overcome the body, for the majority of us, especially for those of us who are ill, when the body is in crisis, the mind is too. Physical illness infects the mind: when your body ails, your mind, your thoughts, your plans, your identity is changed.

So, what can you do when your mind wants to do one thing and your body is saying another?

These three golden rules are what got me through the weekend: respect your body’s limitations (when you feel too tired to keep going, take a nap), compromise (one hour of work, one hour of rest), and when you need to, ask for help (thank you, Séamus).

*Footnote:  I have no idea what as gasket actually is, though I know of it. I can’t drive — I don’t even have a permit– but I still have my poetic license!

 Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


30 Jan


As I mentally prepare for my bone marrow transplant I can’t help but revisit my first hospitalization following my diagnosis in May 2011. Eight months to this day, I entered a New York City hospital for five weeks of induction chemotherapy.

Within 48 hours, I was placed in isolation in a drab room where the windows didn’t open; an electronic bracelet was strapped to my wrist (my tag said my name but I half-expected to be labeled Patient 4256345); I was issued a uniform (are budget cutbacks the reason for backless hospital gowns?); my head was shaved by someone they insisted upon calling a beautician who gave “haircuts” for $25 bucks a pop (I had entered a new etiquette zone: how much do you tip for a cancer haircut?); and a triple lumen catheter was surgically implanted in my chest to create a central line through which chemotherapy and fluids would be administered. I was all tied up, with both limbs connected to a monitor holding IV bags that loomed over my bed like an awning.

This was to be the first of my many incancerations.

Over the next few weeks, I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect on the hospital experience. Before long, as my immune system became depleted, everyone who entered my room was required to wear a mask. (And I had to wear a mask anytime I left the room.) To say nothing of the loss of privacy a hospital patient endures (people burst in at all hours without notice), the face mask requirement added to the feeling of separation that distinguishes the helpers from the helped. Visually, it was a bold signpost for disease, delineating me from the rest, the sick from the healthy. What a strange sight it was to wake up day in and day out to find a cluster of doctors–only their eyes visible above their purple face masks–hovering over me. Eyes and ties. Sometimes, the rules were expanded to require visitors to wear gloves and a hospital gown. I wondered if the next stage would be hazmat suits, like in the last part of E.T. Suleika, phone home.

It dawned on me that along with the other patients on the floor, I was the “Other.” And it wasn’t the fault of the medical staff. Cancer has a way of issuing patients an instant ticket to the world of otherness. You look different, you feel different, you even sound different, as you drag the beeping monitor with you everywhere you go (I jokingly called it my “little friend”).

I couldn’t help but feel a bit like an “inmate” shackled to the schedule of the “outside world.” I remember guiltily feeling envy, and eventually some resentment, towards my visitors as they were leaving the hospital. “I’m taking a break, and I’ll be back soon,” a friend would say. I could understand this, but it also made me angry. I too desperately needed a “break.”

The escape fantasies began when I lost enough weight that I could slip my electronic bracelet off my wrist. Central Park taunted me from my window. I plotted my escape and dreamt about stepping outside the confines of the hospital and standing in the rain — even if just for a minute. Fresh air is an amusement ride in the imagination of someone who has been in the hospital for an extended stay. One day, as I was being wheeled out of the oncology ward for an emergency CT scan, I asked the man pushing my bed what would happen “if” I tried to escape from the hospital. He laughed but then gave me a serious look and said: “You’ll be in big trouble if you do: your bracelet will set off an alarm and the guards will drag you back up here.”

Finally, on a day when I was feeling relatively stable, I attempted to go through with my plan. I hid my electronic bracelet under my pillow and told the nurse I was going for a short walk. I made it as far as the cafeteria on the ground floor. Then, I froze. It was lunch time and people swarmed around me, brushing and bumping me as I tried to stand my ground. My anxiety mounted as I thought of all the germs in the air. I was having trouble breathing. What if I fell? What if I fainted? “I don’t belong here,” I realized. Within a few minutes I had returned to my room. Beep, beep. My little friend chirped. Strangely, I felt safe again.

As a cancer patient, the lexicon of punishment seems to scream out from everywhere I look. Your movement is monitored. Decisions as basic as what and when to eat require pre-approval from a higher order. Not to mention that chemotherapy feels like a semi-lethal punishment in and of itself. The medical staff plays the judge. At any moment, your doctor can issue a sentence: probation, house arrest, time in “jail,” and for some, even death row. I’ve never had to appear in court, but I imagine the adrenaline pumps the way it does before a doctor reads your biopsy results.

Of course, I was incredibly lucky to even have the option of hospitalization, a “right” denied to countless people in this country and around the world. But I couldn’t help but to reflect on the parallels between hospitals and those other (increasingly privatized) confinement palaces.

In retrospect, inventing the term “incanceration” to describe my new diagnosis reflected just how confused, scared and isolated I felt. It’s not that the hospital and my doctors were bad. Far from it. I knew they were the very best and I felt a deep sense of respect and appreciation for them. But on an irrational level, I also felt wronged by those whom I felt had “poisoned” me (medical staff who administered the chemotherapy) and by those who encouraged me (family and friends) to think positively. Finding the silver lining seemed like an impossible feat.

At the peak of my self-pity, I remember asking my favorite nurse, “Why would you ever want to work in an oncology ward?”

Her response really changed my perspective. She told me how she used to work in the spinal cord injury unit, but after a few months, she couldn’t handle the emotional toll it took on her. She transferred to oncology. “You mean there’s a place worse than here?” I asked. She described the patients who come in (often around my age) and wake up in a hospital bed only to discover that they are permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

I felt ashamed that I had forgotten one of life’s truest maxims: there’s always worse. Or to say it in a different way, people who are faced with disease, misfortune or loss in the world constitute an expansive, age-old club.

I remembered how lucky I was that a cure was even an option for me. That day, as I dragged myself out of bed to go for a walk, I forgot how tired I felt and luxuriated in the movement of my legs and the in-and-out of my breathing.

It took a long time for me to begin finding new, more positive ways of understanding what had happened to me. But learning to accept that I was very sick also helped me to realize that I needed help in order to survive this disease. Could I begin to see the hospital not as a prison, but instead as a place of healing that was at times punishing? Could I learn to view my doctors not as judges but as gate keepers to a long and complex healing process? This much I knew: I am lucky to have my family, friends and a dedicated medical team in my corner.

Still, every time I think I have come to peace with my reality, a new bump in my medical journey can quickly undo any fledgling resolve. But instead of listing all the ways in which having cancer has obstructed my freedom, I am challenging myself to think of cancer as my guru and to remind myself of all it has taught me. It’s hard, but I’m trying.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page


%d bloggers like this: