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From Almost Dying to Fully Living: Cancer lessons from Suleika Jaouad

By: Suleika "GI Jane" Jaouad & Anna Kenyon

The First Descents community continues to embody out living it every day. Time and time again, our participants share what the experience of facing death has taught them about living life fully. One FD participant, Suleika “GI Jane” Jaouad has shared her cancer experience with young adults world-wide. From her honest, raw and relatable New York Times column, Life, Interruptedto her recent debut on the TED Stage, GI Jane has brought humanity and insight to an often shielded topic.

This year, GI Jane will be publishing her first book Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. Her memoir will explore a journey that all those touched by cancer navigate in their own ways…

When she finally walked out of the cancer ward—after three and a half years of chemo, a clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant—she was, according to the doctors, cured. But she learned that a cure is not where the work of healing ends; it’s where it begins. She spent the past 1,500 days in desperate pursuit of one goal—to survive. And when she did, she realized she had no idea how to live.

How does one reenter the world and live again? She didn’t know, so she embarked—with her new best friend, Oscar, a scruffy terrier mutt—on a 100-day, 15,000-mile road trip across the country. Suleika set out to meet some of the strangers who had written to her during her years in the hospital: a teenage girl in Florida also recovering from cancer; a teacher in California grieving the death of her son; a death-row inmate in Texas who’d spent his own years confined to a room. What she learned on this trip is that the divide between sick and well is porous, that the vast majority of us will travel back and forth between these realms throughout our lives. Between Two Kingdoms is an exploration of what it means to begin again.

With her ultra-resonant TED Talk behind her, and the publication of Between Two Kingdoms just ahead, we sat down with GI Jane to ask her a few questions about how First Descents inspired her to live boldly and create meaning after her life was interrupted by cancer.

When and where was your FD program, and what is your nickname? 

My first FD program was kayaking in Tarkio, Montana 2013. I also did a 50-mile bike ride through New Hampshire as part of the First Descents Tributaries program. My nickname is GI Jane on account of the buzzed head I had at the time.

How did your First Descents program affect your relationship with your body, and your bodily expectations and limitations after cancer treatment? 

When you’re sick it’s easy to conceive of the body as broken or a burden. Through the First Descents experience, I got to re-imagine a new relationship to my body, one that wasn’t adversarial, but adventurous and challenging.

Did the community of participants on your First Descents program make you feel more understood, more “normal”, or more able to self-accept during the journey of living and healing? If so, how?  

One of the hardest parts of my cancer experience was how isolating it could be. First Descents offered a much-needed antidote. I met some of my closest friends through FD. It’s a community that has continued to live and exist with me long after the end of the trip. Not just the participants, but the lead staff as well. My camp mom Salsa and I became so close that she even invited me back to her house in Montana after the trip was over!

Is there a thought, moment or story from your First Descents program that really has stuck with you and resonated as you navigate your way forward? 

I was hesitant to go on a First Descents program because I was still in chemo, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. The lead staff was incredibly supportive and helped me find workarounds so that I could still participate. One of the leaders had a two-person kayak and whenever I needed rest, he would let me hop into the back of his kayak. FD showed me a way to be mindful of my limitations while also being someone “out living it.”

Suleika Jaouad is an Emmy Award-winning writer, speaker, activist and cancer survivor. She wrote the acclaimed New York Times column “Life, Interrupted” and is the subject of the accompanying video series, which chronicled her journey with leukemia throughout her twenties. She has written reported features, essays and commentary for New York Times Magazine, Vogue, NPR, National Geographic, Glamour, and numerous other publications. Her highly anticipated debut memoir, Between Two Kingdoms, is forthcoming from Random House. Suleika has attended First Descents events from kayaking in Tarkio, Montana to a 50-mile bike ride in New Hampshire, to the Annual First Descents Ball in Avon, Colorado.

When she’s not on the road with her Volkswagen camper van and rescue mutt Oscar, Suleika lives in Brooklyn. Connect with Suleika on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to her newsletter to receive a monthly dose of inspiration straight to your inbox.

1 thought on “From Almost Dying to Fully Living: Cancer lessons from Suleika Jaouad”

  1. When you come to the edge of all light you have known

    And must take step into the darkness of the unknown

    Believe that one of two things will happen to you

    There will be something solid to stand on or you’ll be taught how to fly

    Patrick Overton

    My thoughts are with you for round 2.

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