Last fall, cancer-free after after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia nearly five years earlier, Suleika Jaouad ’10 embarked on a 100-day road trip across the United States with her 15-pound rescue dog, Oscar. Illness “puts you in a cage,” she says. “I knew after my treatment ended that I needed to bust out of that cage and get back out in the world.”
Jaouad learned she had cancer just months after graduating from Princeton. She documented the treatment that followed — dozens of rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant — in “Life, Interrupted,” a column and video series for The New York Times (PAW profiled Jaouad in 2012). Thousands of readers from across the country wrote her letters and emails offering sympathy and support. Returned to full health, she left her home in New York City last October to visit these “unexpected strangers.”
Her hosts ranged in age from 16 to 78 and lived everywhere from the suburbs of Florida to a state penitentiary in Texas. In Montana, Jaouad stayed on a cattle ranch and spoke at a two-room schoolhouse. A few days before Christmas, she met with a death-row inmate who had spent nearly half his life in prison. “All the time, I had this feeling of, how did I end up here?” Jaouad says. “But it’s really a testament to the power of storytelling. Because I shared my story, I found myself in these worlds that I never would have known existed.” Stories from her trip eventually will make their way into a book, she says.
When she began writing her column, Jaouad was less interested in the specifics of her illness than in what it meant to have her youth interrupted by cancer. And the people who responded to her writing weren’t just cancer patients and survivors. “They were dealing with all kinds of interruptions,” she says. “What I’m interested in now is what happens afterward? How do you find your way forward and rebuild your life?”
Apart from her writing and a busy public-speaking schedule, Jaouad continues to wrestle with the question of what’s next — “of actually making plans for the future without being paralyzed by the anxiety that you’ll get sick again,” she says. But her experience with cancer has helped her take creative risks and taught her how to live with uncertainty. “Part of the beauty of spending years in limbo,” she says, “is that you get really good at embracing the unknown.”