- Sunny Thukral, 26, thought her headaches and confusion were caused by school stress, grief, and a breakup.
- She was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an incurable, aggressive brain cancer more common among older men.
- Thukral is prepared to beat the odds and her experience has influenced her career goals as a vet.
First, Sunny Thukral’s grandfather died when she wasn’t by his side. “That hit me really hard,” the 26-year-old said.
Then, she began her final year at UC Davis Veterinary School, which has been ranked No. 1 in the world. “I was insanely stressed because I wanted to do a good job,” she said.
Around the same time, Thukral went through a breakup — another “cherry on top” of her accumulating emotional load, she said.
So when Thukral developed increasingly intense headaches in spring 2022 and began tripping over even the simplest calculations in school, she thought it was a physical manifestation of her grief and stress.
“Maybe I just need some migraine medication,” Thukral thought. By this point, about a month after her symptoms began, Tylenol wasn’t cutting it.
But when she arrived at urgent care crying from pain and confusion, clinicians didn’t give her medication. They gave her a CT scan and, soon after, began preparing a hospital bed.
Within 48 hours, she was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable brain cancer, and told most people with the disease only live a couple years.
“Holy shit, I’m going to die tomorrow,” she thought. “Tell everyone you love them.”
Now, more than five months later, Thukral is exceeding doctors’ expectations. She shared her story with Insider to advocate for brain cancer research funding, and to encourage people not to accept a bleak prognosis as fate.
Thukral had surgery to remove most of the tumor
Thukral’s parents traveled to Davis when she was first hospitalized and took her back to LA, their hometown, for treatment. “I don’t think I let go of my parents’ hands for, like, weeks,” Thukral said.
In LA, Thukral’s aunt, a radiology specialist, connected her with a UCLA neurosurgeon.
Thukral appreciated that the doctor spoke to her like the aspiring medical professional she is, and chose him to operate. The doctor removed most of Thukral’s tumor in June. If he’d removed it all, Thukral would have lost her right-side motor function.
Then, Thukral completed six weeks of radiotherapy, which came with side effects including hair loss.
Along the way, Thukral documented her experience on TikTok and accrued more than 25,000 followers.
“It was complete and absolute shock in the very beginning” that her story, and morbid humor, resonated with people, she said.
Thukral also said posting about her personal life on social media is uncharacteristic, and that many of her initial posts were likely fueled by mania, a side effect of the steroids she was on to tame brain inflammation.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m getting all this attention for something terrible that’s happening. I’m gonna keep posting about it. It makes me feel better,’” Thukral said. “My brain was working a million miles a minute.”
While she’s now off steroids and no longer posts frequently, Thukral said she doesn’t regret sharing her story since she’s connected with other young people in similar situations.
Most patients with glioblastoma are older men
Glioblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor, affecting just over 3 people out of every 100,000, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Symptoms can include persistent headaches, vision changes, difficulty speaking, loss of appetite, and mood changes.
The average age of diagnosis is 64 years old, according to AANS, and most patients are men. Doctors don’t know why some people develop glioblastoma, but some hereditary conditions like Lynch syndrome can raise the risk.
“Why did I get put in this box?” Thukral sometimes thinks. She’s never had a serious health issue before.
About 40% of people with glioblastoma survive the first year of diagnosis, and only 17% make it through the second year. The way the cancer embeds itself into nearby brain tissue is one reason it’s so difficult to treat.
“Brain cancer is one of the most underfunded types of cancer,” Thukral said. “And there are no cures to the type of cancer I have.”
But she’s determined to beat the odds, and says her doctors suspect she will, given her age.
“If you are given a diagnosis and a prognosis that you don’t like to hear, don’t listen,” Thukral said. “I’m not living my life on a timeline of two, three, four years. I am expecting to still get married. I’m going to have kids. I’m going to watch them grow up. I’m going to manifest that to happen.”
Thukral’s tumor continues to shrink
These days, Thukral is on monthly oral chemotherapy, and trying a range of complementary treatments, including herbal supplements and cannabis.
At Thukral’s latest brain scan, her oncologist told her to keep doing what she’s doing because her tumor continues to shrink.
“I don’t know what’s working and I don’t know what’s overkill, but as long as things are still going well, I’m gonna stick with everything I’ve got,” Thukral said.
Her main symptoms of living with what’s left of the tumor are cognitive — she sometimes loses her train of thought or stumbles over words. She’s taking a break from school until her linear thinking becomes more reliable, something she’s working to improve with practice and brain supplements like those made from mushrooms.
But Thukral is determined to return — and focus on at-home euthanasia services to help families putting down pets in pain. She wants to make it a “comfortable, loving environment instead of a scary one.”
“This experience has definitely gotten me to be more in touch with the concept of death,” she said, “and what I would want, and what I feel like my dog would want when she passes, and what my grandfather wanted when he passed.”