“You have to trust that you can be vulnerable with people," the 2020 Pulitzer finalist said.
May 27, 2022

Soraya McDonald embraces vulnerabilities during cancer fight and emerges stronger than ever

Alexis Davis

Just when Andscape senior culture critic Soraya McDonald’s career appeared to be reaching an ideal place, life dealt her a significant challenge. A Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis is in itself quite daunting, and now McDonald was also forced to deal with her vulnerabilities head on.

“I was finally at a place where I was beginning to get some respect in my career and people were actually reading and liked what I had to say and the way I say it,” said McDonald, a former Washington Post journalist, who has been at the website formerly known as The Undefeated since its founding in 2016. “Then you have this big curveball that gets thrown into your life—all of the things that make me uncomfortable that I do not like, including the feeling of not being in control of my life or my own body for that matter. Feeling profoundly unattractive and losing hair on absolute every part of your body. You look like an alien; it’s freaky. It was too big to pretend and keep from people.”

With the help and support of those closest to her, the 2004 SJI alum is now cancer free, reinvigorated and ready once again to call out wrongs in her position as a critic, with new ideas on how to tackle subjects near and dear to her. Recently she had a battle with Covid despite being vaccinated and boosted.

In 2020, McDonald’s essays on theater and art earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination for criticism – to date she is the only SJI graduate to be so honored. Informed by her editor Steve Reiss that Andscape submitted her work, her first response was, “Why? Why would you waste that money?”

“There’s not much diversity in the world of theater and film criticism,” said Reiss, executive editor for culture and enterprise for Andscape, ESPN’s rebranded digital publication specializing in Black culture and identity. “So when someone like Soraya comes around – a powerful, intelligent voice who isn’t afraid to take on sacred cows – it’s no wonder people flock to hear what she’s saying.”

It was during this high point of her career, in April 2021, that she received news of her cancer diagnosis. She took a break from writing during her treatment but managed to keep in touch with her readership through SNM Mixtape, a Substack that also allowed her extended family to be in the loop during the pandemic. Some excerpts focused on her diagnosis; others were simply an attempt to add a comedic layer to a life-altering new reality.

“You have to trust people,” McDonald said. “You have to trust that you can be vulnerable with people. I thought I owed it to my readers to explain why I would be disappearing. It was very difficult to come to grips with, because I wanted to keep my head down and work, but I could not do that.”

Meanwhile, McDonald kept her mother and sister by her side when time allowed. When it didn’t, she relied on two friends to keep her grounded: Jessica Valenti, co-founder of Feministing and serial author, and Talia Buford, talent development director for ProPublica. Valenti and Bluford even created a spreadsheet to keep track of who would spend time with McDonald and when.

It was Buford, her friend of many decades, whom McDonald relied on during a critical part of her treatment—when she decided to fully let go of her hair.

“She [McDonald] called me and she said, ‘I think I want to shave my head’,” Buford said. “I told her OK, and that I would come over. We were watching something ridiculous on the television like ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ or something. I sat on the couch and I shaved her head for her. I tried to make sure she was able to dictate how we were helping. This was all happening during the pandemic and not only was everyone isolated but she was in a way doubly isolated because of her immune system.”

Professionally, McDonald is no stranger to isolation. She describes decades of feeling invisible and closed in at previous publications, and says Andscape’s staff and audience made her truly feel at home and set her voice free.

“Soraya doesn’t ever ‘mail it in’ when it comes to her writing,” Reiss said. “She doesn’t give herself permission to coast every now and then. Instead, she agonizes and sweats to make every piece meet her high standards, to be thoughtful and complete. That means her pieces are still worth reading years after they first appeared.”

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