By Suleika Jaouad
Earlier this week I found myself surrounded by journalism royalty. Many of the most-talented and most-courageous broadcast journalists, editors, producers and videographers had gathered at New York’s Lincoln Center for the 34th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
But to my amazement, I was not just a guest or casual observer at the Emmys – I was a nominee. The New York Times video series Life, Interrupted had been honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a nomination for its most prestigious award. The series was one among 1,400 nominations that evening vying for just 40 golden Emmy statues that beckoned on the stage.
They always say at award shows that it’s an honor just to be nominated. In my case, that sentiment is particularly meaningful.
Just a few years ago, at the age of 22, I learned I had an aggressive form of leukemia. I needed intensive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant to save my life. Back then, my doctors told me that I had a 35 percent chance of surviving my transplant. I found myself fighting for a future I had yet to define. The notion of professional achievement, let alone an accolade like an Emmy nomination, was simply not in my realm of possibilities.
Being in your twenties and trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do in life — with or without cancer — is a scary endeavor on its own. But learning that I was facing a life-threatening illness made me feel like someone had just hit the pause button on my life before it had really begun. As an undergraduate, I had traveled across North Africa and the Middle East to study women’s rights through narrative storytelling and oral history. I ended up writing my senior thesis about the subject. One of the chapters was titled Voices of the Voiceless, and it detailed the underreported stories of women in Tunisia. I was inspired by the journalist Amy Goodman who has said, “The responsibility of a journalist is to travel where the silence is.” That was exactly what I hoped to do with my life.
But just months after walking across the stage at my college graduation, cancer interrupted my plans. It was hard to imagine any kind of future, let alone my plans to become a journalist and champion the cause of women around the world.
Isolated in the oncology ward, I began to think about my dream to become a writer. What could I possibly write about now? Where could I travel if I was stuck to an IV pole? Maybe the story wasn’t in a faraway land but right in front of me. I hadn’t chosen this story — it had chosen me. But I decided to accept the challenge.
Slowly, I began to report from the frontlines of my hospital bed, first in journals, and then, in a hastily put together blog. Cancer isn’t something that makes you want to share … it’s something that makes you want to hide. The shift from telling other people’s stories to writing in the first person about something so personal was difficult. After all, cancer isn’t exactly something you update on your LinkedIn profile. But I knew this much: writing about what was happening to me felt good, even when my body didn’t.
I’ve never felt as lost as I did in that first year after I found out I had cancer. But without realizing it, I had also found my voice. Although I’d never been published before, I e-mailed my journalism professor Marty Gottlieb and asked him what he thought about pitching my story to The Times’ Well section, where I had been reading dispatches from another cancer patient, Dana Jennings, who was chronicling his life after treatment for prostate cancer.
He helped me reach out to the editors at The Times, and in the spring of 2012, my first column appeared just as I was undergoing a bone marrow transplant, followed soon thereafter by the Life, Interrupted video series.
I never could have imagined that 18 months later I would be sitting in the audience at the Emmys, waiting for my category to be announced. And then something incredible happened: we won. Suleika Jaouad was part of the winning team for the Life, Interrupted video series.
Standing on the stage, holding that golden, and surprisingly heavy, Emmy statue, has to be one of the most surreal, amazing moments of my life. Shayla Harris, the series producer and the woman who spent countless hours with me filming my story, gave a beautiful acceptance speech as my editor Tara Parker-Pope celebrated the moment with me. Days later, I still can’t believe we won an Emmy.
Living with cancer has been terrifying, but in some ways, it’s also made me feel fearless and like anything is possible. It’s taught me that time is precious and that I need to go for the things I want — not tomorrow, but today. After all, what do I have to lose?
I still don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I’m doing well and continue to be cancer-free. The stories and words of encouragement I’ve received from readers and viewers of Life, Interrupted have been my lifeline to an incredible and supportive community. None of this would have been possible without you.
In my small way, I hope I have traveled to where the silence is and given voice to a community that’s too often voiceless: young adults with cancer. Here’s to making the most of a life, interrupted.
Suleika has written about her life as a young leukemia patient in The New York Times Well section. Her essays are called Life, Interrupted.