Sharing Love at MSK — One Card at a Time


Cupids, flowers, chocolates, and candy hearts — these are the mainstays of Valentine’s Day, the annual celebration of love that gets real hearts fluttering every February 14. Cards are another longstanding Valentine’s tradition — and The Scarlett Fund, with help from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center employees, is using cards to make sure that patients and staff will be feeling the love for a long time to come.

Two enthusiastic “cupids” — Elizabeth Rodriguez, Director of Nursing at the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Jennifer Tota, Vice President of Hospital Administration at the David H. Koch  Center for Cancer Care — wearing red clothes and bright smiles and toting bags of heartfelt greetings, made the rounds at Koch on February 14. Led by Diane Reidy-Lagunes, Associate Deputy Physician-in-Chief of the Regional Care Network and an oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal and endocrine cancers, they visited infusion and inpatient floors and delivered handmade Valentine’s Day cards, courtesy of The Scarlett Fund, to patients and employees. As head cupid, Dr. Reidy-Lagunes also delivered cards to inpatient floors at Memorial Hospital. Before the day was done, more than 1,000 cards were distributed.

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Heart’s Desire

The Scarlett Fund was launched by Jennifer James to support pediatric cancer research at MSK, including more-targeted treatments with fewer side effects. Jennifer, a mother of two with a successful career, was compelled to become a fundraising powerhouse when her 6-year-old daughter, Scarlett, was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in 2013. Scarlett endured 25 months of difficult treatment that kept her out of school for two years. Happily, she was declared cancer-free six years later, in December 2019.

Since Scarlett’s diagnosis, Jennifer has hosted or participated in more than 50 fundraising events and raised $3.4 million — all to support MSK Kids. She participates in MSK’s Cycle for Survival and Kids Walk for MSK Kids, has run seven marathons with Fred’s Team — and is running a 50-mile ultramarathon in March 2022, also for Fred’s Team — served as Co-Chair of MSK’s Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality (PFACQ) and was a member of PFACQ’s Ethics Committee, and is a member of The Society of MSK, where she sits on the Children’s Committee.

“My endless gratitude for MSK Kids’ lifesaving treatment and care makes me want to give back as much as possible,” says Jennifer. “I made a promise to myself that I would do whatever I could to help other families.”

Scarlett, who is now 15, is equally dedicated to improving the lives of people with cancer. She talks to students at schools across New York City about pediatric cancer and the work of The Scarlett Fund, and currently serves on the Kids Walk for MSK Kids Student Board. Recently, she was accepted to be an intern for Kids v Cancer, where she advocates for adoption of the Give Kids a Chance Act — a bill before Congress that would require companies undertaking pediatric cancer trials to do combination drug trials instead of single drug trials, hopefully increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome for the young trial participants.

Making Good: How Jennifer James Became a Fundraising Powerhouse
Jennifer James has hosted or participated in more than 50 fundraising events and raised $3.1 million — all to support MSK Kids.

A Labor of Love

For both Jennifer and Scarlett, part of helping patients and families is making sure they know that people are thinking about them. It was this desire that gave rise to The Scarlett Fund’s card initiative, a grassroots campaign to create and distribute cards to MSK patients during the winter holidays and on Valentine’s Day.

Since the card initiative started in 2016, word has spread around the world about the opportunity to share messages of hope, strength, and caring with patients — both pediatric and adult. Schools in New York City, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas, and beyond have organized card-creating sessions for students to teach the importance of community service. Girl Scout troops, community groups, sports teams, and individual young people have organized card-making parties and drives in school lunchrooms and at club meetings. The cards themselves — some bearing the first names of MSK patients provided by physicians; some not customized so they can be given to anyone — feature goofy jokes, messages of solidarity and encouragement, hearts and flowers drawn in crayon, and beautifully rendered pictures. The look of the cards varies, but the sentiment expressed to patients is the same: People are pulling for you.

“To me, this is part of the magic of MSK and an example of our commitment to our patients of today and tomorrow,” says Dr. Reidy-Lagunes, who met Jennifer while Scarlett was in treatment. “We’re constantly trying to improve therapies for the benefit of future patients, but we’re also focused on doing everything we can to provide comfort to our patients today.”

Jason Giani, a patient of Jia Li’s at MSK Commack, received about 100 cards shortly before Valentine’s Day. Jason, who was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable colorectal cancer in 2015 and is now fighting lung metastasis — and has undergone seven surgeries, 40 sessions of radiation, and approximately 100 chemotherapy infusions — was overcome with emotion when he opened his package from The Scarlett Fund.

“Let me tell you,” Jason shared in an Instagram post. “I couldn’t go a couple cards without crying. The sweet messages from mostly young children, teenagers, and young adults absolutely made my Valentine’s Day. The cards were filled with artwork, scribble, kind words, and also some really funny jokes that we haven’t stopped laughing at!”

To me, this is part of the magic of MSK and an example of our commitment to our patients of today and tomorrow.
Diane Reidy-Lagunes medical oncologist

An Abundance of Support

The idea for the card initiative started with children. When Scarlett was admitted to the hospital, friends from school visited her and read cards that her classmates had created. Jennifer put the cards on the walls of Scarlett’s room as a constant reminder that she was loved. After she finished her treatment, Scarlett began writing cards to children who were still in the hospital, and then Jennifer’s son, Austin, followed suit. From there, the idea took flight like a winged cherub.

This Valentine’s Day, Jennifer received more than 11,000 cards from around the world. She mailed many of them to patients’ homes but also sent a large quantity to Dr. Reidy-Lagunes for sorting and in-person distribution. Most of the cards go to patients, but during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Scarlett Fund began distributing cards to employees as part of an outpouring of gratitude to MSK’s healthcare heroes. They plan to continue that practice.

“My family and I always say if we can help one person, we’ve done something right,” says Jennifer. “It means so much to us to give back in a way that I know made a difference to my own daughter.”

It’s also important to Jennifer that young people see how their actions can positively affect others. 

“It’s part of Jen’s mission to teach young people the power they have to change lives,” says Dr. Reidy-Lagunes. “She wants to engage the community in showing support and compassion.”

“I was lucky to have such a strong community close by when Scarlett was in treatment,” says Jennifer, whose family lives in Manhattan. “But people come to MSK from all over the world, and some don’t have that support network.”

To Jennifer, these people — patients, like her daughter, as well as caregivers, like her — aren’t strangers; they’re friends she hasn’t met yet. And, as one friend to another, she has a simple message: “I want them to know that people care about them.”