It sounds silly to think about stuffed animals—as a then-24-year-old—or anything really giving much comfort as chemotherapy drugs flowed through my veins, but as I have come to realize over two relapses is that the gesture matters. It is as simple as that.
Whether it was my first time receiving chemotherapy or my first relapse, it gave me hope knowing that people, even strangers, cared about my well-being. By the third time around, I was barely hanging on. Chemotherapy and radiation had drained me. I had showed up to the hospital looking and feeling like death.
My “Birth” Day
I call it my absolute worst and best day: Day 0, when I received my CAR T-cells in March 2019. It was the worst, because the two prior days of pre-conditioning chemotherapy had left me in a terrible state. Getting out of bed that morning, I had zero appetite, zero energy, and zero hope. I remember feeling so mentally and physically exhausted that I could barely stay standing while checking in for admission.
Upon being admitted, however, I noticed a stuffed green grocery bag tied at the handles. A nurse had placed the bag in my room, but rather than it be a part of an official hospital welcome, it instead came from a former patient. Soon, I was preoccupied with uncovering all the thoughtful gifts left by this stranger, while reading the hopeful note about how she had been in my shoes one year prior and was well again. What an inspiration this became!
I felt myself starting to regain strength. Then when the mutant T-cells, which had been re-engineered in a lab in California to attack my cancer cells, were being infused back into me, it was literally giving me a new life. On the outside, it was entirely uneventful—think of a typical blood infusion or draw. There was also a medical student who stayed to observe and chat with me through it, and it was that distraction with the sweet care package that allowed me to see that life would keep going. I would keep going.
Paying the Kindness Forward
Such an experience is what motivated me to start my own nonprofit and pay forward the kindness that I had received. (The next hardest moment was on my birthday a few days later, when the side effects of those T-cells landed me in the ICU for two days. What a way to celebrate, huh?)
In fact, completing graduate school during a global pandemic, while founding a nonprofit that helps others affected by cancer have become my greatest accomplishments since my diagnosis. Kits to Heart distributes thoughtfully designed, curated cancer care kits at hospitals and cancer centers in the Baltimore/Washington Metro Area community, as well as ships directly to patients nationwide. I have used my experiences and interactions with patients and social workers to pack the kits with informational resources and comforting products compatible with various cancer treatments. Just like receiving a care package from a survivor gave me hope and inspiration to pay it forward, we can inspire hope at the most difficult moments of treatments.
After undergoing more than anyone should ever have to, life is undoubtedly different. I go on more walks and hikes, for example. I have always enjoyed walking and taking in my surroundings, especially while abroad—but being on the verge of death multiple times tends to change your perspective on simple things like being able to take a leisurely stroll.
I also find joy by giving joy, especially to others affected by cancer. The very act of giving kindness reminds me that I am alive and reinforces the immense gratitude I have. From the scientists who believed in our own immune systems and pursued the research that resulted in CAR T-cell therapy today, to my resilient caregivers, I am thankful.
Yet, not everyone is fortunate enough to have strong support systems, let alone a ride to and from their cancer treatments. It is why I strongly advocate for giving joy in any way that you can when a loved one is diagnosed. Cancer is a lonely enough journey, full of anxiety and uncertainty. It hurts when friends or relatives stay silent during such a tough period. But I get it—given the circumstances, some simply have no idea how to help, while hospitals are not able to address all physical and psychosocial needs of patients with cancer.
These are persistent problems related to cancer care, but as long as I am able to, I hope that my story and efforts are able to provide hope and inspiration to those who need it. Especially during these times, a gift and the message it brings—that you are loved—mean so much. And for me, cancer has certainly taught me how to love and be loved.
Sonia Su is the founder of the nonprofit Kits to Heart. She was diagnosed with an aggressive type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2018. Her last treatment was CAR T-cell immunotherapy in March 2019 and she remains in remission. Sonia holds a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Boston University.