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Suleika Jaouad's journey "Between Two Kingdoms"

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Given a one-in-three chance of survival, Suleika Jaouad overcame leukemia in her 20s, documenting her nearly-four-year endurance of chemotherapy and her desire to live a normal life in a New York Times column, "Life, Interrupted." She followed with a 15,000-mile road trip to meet 22 of the many strangers who had written to her with stories of their own, a journey which became her new book, "Between Two Kingdoms." Correspondent Jim Axelrod talks with Jaouad, and with her partner, musician Jon Batiste, about life after cancer.

Video Transcript

- Never underestimate the strength a person in need can find, thanks to the kindness of strangers. Jim Axelrod has one woman's remarkable story.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JIM AXELROD: On her graduation day from Princeton in 2010, Suleika Jaouad's future seemed luminous and limitless.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: At that age, time feels infinite. Feels like, you know, you'll figure it out. You have time to try things, to experiment. But as it turned out, I didn't have time.

JIM AXELROD: 11 months later, a leukemia diagnosis robbed her of that time.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: She said they're going to schedule-- they've scheduled a bone marrow biopsy for Friday.

JIM AXELROD: All that promise replaced by a brutal chemo regimen that would only provide a 1 in 3 chance of survival.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: I remember going on social media and seeing photographs of my friends going to parties and starting, you know, new jobs and traveling. It really felt like my life was over before it had really begun.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JIM AXELROD: Rare moments of joy, like when an old pal from music cam showed up at her cancer ward with his band were overwhelmed by her new reality.

What do you remember about how you were able to process it as it was happening?

SULEIKA JAOUAD: Mm, I'm not sure I did a lot of processing. The overwhelm was so great that I was in a state of total shock.

JIM AXELROD: Isolated, disoriented, and voiceless, Suleika began to write, finding something steady in her daily journal entries.

An act of affirmation.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: It was also an act of imagination. And what I realized in that writing is that really, survival is its own kind of creative act.

JIM AXELROD: Posting them on a blog, she caught the eye of a "New York Times" editor who offered her a column and video series, "Life, Interrupted."

SULEIKA JAOUAD: My priorities are different. My goals for the future are different. I see the world differently. I see myself differently.

My column launched while I was in the bone marrow transplant unit. And I remember waking up the next morning and opening my inbox and seeing hundreds of emails from strangers all around the world.

JIM AXELROD: Overnight, Suleika had what she had yearned for most-- purpose.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: There's a photograph of me in the transplant unit where I have a vomit bucket under one arm. I have my laptop on my knees, and I'm crying not because, you know, I'm about to have a bone marrow transplant, but because I've missed a deadline.

JIM AXELROD: Setting a standard of multitasking.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: Yeah. There you go-- [CHUCKLES] or workaholism, I don't know. [LAUGHS]

- Can you tell me your name and date of birth?

SULEIKA JAOUAD: [? Adele ?] Jaouad Suleika, 7/5/88.

JIM AXELROD: After a traumatic three and a half-year ordeal of treatment, including that last-chance bone marrow transplant that carried a life-threatening risk of heart failure and organ damage, Suleika beat the odds. She was cancer-free, no longer sick, but not exactly well, either.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: I'd never felt more lost. I couldn't return to the person I'd been pre-diagnosis. I was no longer a cancer patient, but I had no idea who I was.

JIM AXELROD: But you knew that you didn't want your life to be defined by the worst thing that had ever happened to you.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: Yeah. I would have to figure out a way not to move on, because I don't think that's possible, but to move forward.

I found myself returning to this big wooden box that was filled with letters that I'd received from all kinds of people over the years.

JIM AXELROD: From that chest, she chose 22 letters and hit the road with her dog Oscar for 100-day 15,000-mile reset ritual, meeting strangers she felt had something to teach her about healing, like a professor named Howard in Ohio.

HOWARD: You get immersed in life again. Let's face it, life can be good.

JIM AXELROD: A joyful, fearless teenage survivor in Florida, named Unique.

UNIQUE: I want to, like, go on a food binge and just eat crazy things, like, octopus.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: To imagine yourself in the future is a radical act of hope, and I want to be more like that girl. [LAUGHS]

JIM AXELROD: An inmate in Texas named Little GQ, who'd written from death row, and affirmed the power of connection.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: And one of the first things he said to me was, you know, what did you do during all those years in the hospital? I said, I got really, really good at Scrabble. And he looked at me and he kind of laughed, and he said, me too.

JIM AXELROD: Her struggle to heal is the subject of her new book, "Between two Kingdoms."

SULEIKA JAOUAD: The title of the book is a reference to the brilliant Susan Sontag talks about how we all have dual citizenship in the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the well. And it's only a matter of time before we use that other passport. But the place that I found myself at was neither.

JIM AXELROD: A crippling limbo, especially when it came to love--

[MUSIC PLAYING]

--which is where that band camp buddy comes in who kept at it with his music and got himself a pretty good job years later.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

STEPHEN COLBERT: Hey, everybody. Welcome back. Say hi to John Baptiste.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: It was really hard for me to imagine a future with John when I couldn't imagine myself existing in the future yet.

JIM AXELROD: What has she given you in terms of lessons about life and love?

JOHN BAPTISTE: You have a limited time. Get to it. I think that that is the biggest lesson-- embrace the imperfection.

JIM AXELROD: Their history was just what her heart needed-- to trust again.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SULEIKA JAOUAD: At every turn when I thought, you know, there was some aspect of this illness experience that was going to scare him away, he was right there.

[PLAYING PIANO]

JOHN BAPTISTE: You're like a Renaissance woman.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: [LAUGHS]

[PLAYING PIANO]

JIM AXELROD: Suleika Jaouad's road trip may have ended, but her journey has not. And she knows that struggle will always be along for the ride.

Are you healed?

SULEIKA JAOUAD: To say that I'm healed would be to imply that there's an end point. And I think healing is something that we all do. That we'll all continually do for the rest of our lives.