New York Times columnist Suleika Jaouad shared her experience as a young adult battling cancer at the 2014 American Cancer Society Relay for Life Kickoff on Wednesday evening.
Jaouad was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2011, less than a year after graduating from Princeton University.
“I didn’t know what was wrong. My head was pounding and I felt really tired and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror,” Jaouad said.
Jaouad had to undergo chemotherapy treatments as well as a bone marrow transplant.
Jaouad’s column in The New York Times, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicles her experience of battling cancer during her 20s.
“As most of my friends were starting their careers, travelling the world and going to parties, I felt stuck. It was impossible for me to look into the future. The future suddenly became this very scary, unpredictable place,” Jaouad said.
An aspiring journalist, Jaouad saw her column as an opportunity to report on an issue not commonly discussed in the media.
“I wanted to be a war correspondent. I started to realize that there’s a lot of different kind of war reporting that you can do that doesn’t necessarily take place on a battlefield,” Jaouad said. “I found it incredibly liberating to report from the front lines of my hospital room.”
The American Cancer Society allowed Jaouad and her mother to stay at the Hope Lodge, a residence where cancer patients and their caretakers can stay for free when receiving treatment in another city, for four months after Jaouad received her bone marrow transplant in a New York City hospital.
“What the American Cancer Society does, in addition to funding research for clinical trials, is prevent a medical crisis from becoming a financial crisis,” Jaouad said.
Wednesday’s kickoff launched the 2014 Relay for Life season at Georgetown, which culminates in the main Relay event on Apr. 11.
“From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to get someone who would be able to speak to the whole student body and the whole Georgetown wider community,” Relay for Life Special Events Co-Chair Dale Barnhart (SFS ’14), who planned the event, said. “Jaouad was really a wonderful choice for that because what she says is so relevant to so many people our age.”
The university has hosted an annual Relay for Life event since 2007 and has raised a total of $2.1 million for the American Cancer Society. Last year, Georgetown received the Collegiate Top Five Per Capita award, a national honor from the American Cancer Society. The event raised $12.41 per undergraduate student at Georgetown in 2013.
“It can be discouraging sometimes to invest in cancer research and to invest in cancer organization. You don’t always see those results firsthand. But I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the American Cancer Society,” Jaouad said.
For the past two years, the Relay for Life Kickoff has been open house style and featured carnival games. This is the first year that a speaker came to campus for the kickoff.
“I was really excited to see how well this sort of event was able to engage people. I thought it talked more about our message than previous events had,” Barnhart said.
Each year, 72,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer. According to a 2006 National Cancer Institute study, the survival rate for this age group has not improved as quickly as it has for other age groups.
“It was refreshing to hear someone talk about [their] experience as a young adult. You always hear about grandparents having cancer or parents having cancer, but you never hear about friends having cancer,” Relay for Life Executive Committee Recruitment Co-chair Cayla Fappiano (NHS ’15) said. “It was refreshing to hear from someone with a similar perspective as your own.”
While Jaouad’s story was personal and unique, Barnhart said that she felt that its larger message was not just applicable to those battling cancer.
“Her stories are not just about the treatments and the challenges of cancer, they are also about recognizing and celebrating moments of joy, small successes and marvelous hope, and that is a message that applies to us all,” Barnhart said.