Sunny Kim greets me at the door of her tidy Alhambra home. Ushering me into the dining room, she immediately places plates of food in front of me: freshly sliced cantaloupe, oatmeal raisin cookies, sunflower seeds. It is remarkable that Kim is even able to pour me a cup of Korean brown rice tea: a few months ago she received a new liver — and could hardly walk into the kitchen.
Kim is recovering after a five-year stretch of cirrhosis progressed into liver cancer. After two unsuccessful rounds of chemotherapy, the 56-year-old mother of two — including Alhambra Source’s web developer — felt close to giving up. But she kept battling the disease and is now among the 60 to 70 percent of liver cancer patients who survive after a liver transplant, according to the American Cancer Society. The Korean immigrant shares her shock and devastation upon learning of her illness, fight against it, and new perspective on life.*
Nasrin Aboulhosn: How were you diagnosed with cirrhosis?
Sunny Kim: I went to the doctor for high blood pressure. I told him about being tired all the time. He said let me check your liver counts, so he did that, he was really surprised. I guess it was really high. He immediately recommended the liver doctor. And that is when we went there and they told us that I had cirrhosis.
What was the first thing you did?
I was in Hawai‘i and went to the beach and sat. First I cried, so much. Then I said wait a minute, I cannot just sit and cry. I have to think about what I have to do and what the doctor was telling me. There’s a lot of Korean people who keep it to themselves so they don’t bother their family. He thought I was going to do that. He told me you have to let them know and treat it. It’s treatable.
What was chemotherapy like?
I couldn’t thank my son enough. Without him, I’m not here. I was giving up when I had a second chemo. Couldn’t stand the chemo. It’s so hard, it’s so hard and painful and thinking of death all the time. And giving up life in front of my kids was so hard. But my son never gave up.
I’m so glad I made it, but I hurt my son so much through this. I feel guilty. But I got a transplant and a new liver, he’s so happy. But it changed his life and my life. It changed a lot.
How did your life change after being diagnosed with cancer and receiving a liver transplant?
With the cancer, just before I had the liver transplant, I had a bloat in my belly. It was hard to breathe, it would choke me, every time I eat something it would choke. That bloated feeling is gone away after the new liver. Right now there’s so much medicine I’m taking and I get moon face. But you know what, my wrinkles are gone (laughs).
What has been the most surprising thing about cancer?
The doctors and nurses. I’m thankful for the amazing doctors and nurses that took care of me. When we’re on list for transplant, you cannot just go on vacation, you have to stay in the area so when they call you have to come. That’s how life was like, nervous wreck. Because if we didn’t make our time, somebody else will get it.
First time was a false alarm, and the second time we waited a long time in the hospital, and the doctor took out the liver from the dead body. That liver had masses on it, so he couldn’t do it. But [he] really made me feel better. He said, “You’re going to get it, you’re going to get it soon. And when you get it, you’re going to get a good one, I promise you.”
So the third time, we waited about five to six hours in the hospital. And he came over and he kept feeling my liver, he was sizing it and seeing if that person’s liver would fit me. He would massage my belly. I said, “My belly is so old, why you want to do that?” He goes, “Oh, I just want to make sure that one will fit you. I got a really good one.” Mostly doctors won’t tell me those things. But he’s a really good doctor. When he finished, he said, “You get ready, I’m going to go get your liver.”
How did you feel then?
It’s going to happen. We don’t have to go back home. Scared, nervous. Crying and crying for the person who died for me.
What have you learned about yourself through all of this?
I should take care of myself first. Live life for me. It’s selfish. When I was younger, you’re supposed to think about somebody else. That’s what I did. So I’m taking my son’s advice, enjoy myself and do things I always wanted to do.
What did you always want to do?
I was beginning to travel all over the world. All by myself. That’s why I went to Hawai‘i all by myself. I was going to travel for one year and go back to New York. I love to go to different places, find out how different cultures are. I think I will, after I get better. It’s going to take a long time. But someday I will.
*Members of the Alhambra Source are fundraising on behalf of cancer patients in our community and participating in the 2012 Relay for Life this Saturday at Alhambra Park. If you would like to donate to the Alhambra Source team or walk with us, please visit our team page. .
Interview has been edited and condensed.