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Your Stories is a mini-podcast series featuring the unscripted conversations between patients, doctors, and the family and friends who conquer cancer with them.  Participants share their inspiring experiences as wives and husbands, daughters and sons, and sisters and brothers whose lives were interrupted by cancer.


The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. The podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. It is no substitute for professional care by a doctor or other qualified medical professional and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests who speak in a podcast express their own opinions, experience and conclusions. Neither Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundations, nor any of its affiliates endorses, supports or opposes any particular treatment option or other matter discussed in a podcast. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity or therapy on a podcast should not be construed as an endorsement.

Jan 1, 2019

When given a 50-50 chance of surviving blood cancer as a teen in the 1970s, Sophia believed she was going to survive. And Sophia was right.

Fast forward to an eerie dream that nudges the then-30 something mom to seek a second opinion after a doctor dismisses her worries when she finds a lump in her breast. She was right again.

Sophia candidly shares her experiences with her daughter, Kalli, who listens to the details of her mother’s diagnoses for the first time.

Do you believe in a woman's intuition? When given a 50/50 chance of surviving blood cancer as a teen in the 1970s, Sophia believed she was going to survive, even when many around her began preparing for the worst. And Sophia was right.

Fast-forward to an eerie dream that nudges the then-30-something mom to seek a second opinion after a doctor dismisses her worries when she finds a lump in her breast. She was right again. Sophia candidly shares her experiences with her daughter Kalli, who listens to the details of her mother's diagnosis for the first time. Kalli speaks first.

We're here to talk about your experience with cancer. I'm really interested in what life was like before your diagnosis, and what made you go to the doctor and see what was going on.

That's a really interesting question. I was in the 10th grade, and I was playing on the softball team. I played center field, and I noticed I was starting to get a little bit more winded than usual. And I started running this low-grade fever and getting chills and night sweats.

Your grandfather, my dad, brought me into the doctor's office, and they did a chest X-ray. And it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, because I had a huge grapefruit-sized tumor pressing against my heart. They admitted me into the hospital right away. My white blood count apparently was through the roof. And then they confirmed that it was Hodgkin's lymphoma. And I remember my parents celebrating that, because with Hodgkin's lymphoma, I had a 50/50 chance of surviving.

I don't think I've ever heard that part of the story before.

We would go to New York twice a month. I'd get my chemo, and then I'd be sick all weekend. And I basically puked my brains out all weekend. But youth is wonderful. On Monday, I'd be fine and went back to school.

How long were you in chemo? And how long until your doctor finally told you you were cancer free?

I was in a clinical trial at Sloan Kettering. It went on for two years. They didn't paint a rosy picture at first. But they were so impressed by that tumor's reaction, that they upped my odds of survival. It went from 50% to 80% or 90%. So that gave me a lot of confidence.

My last treatment was a week before I graduated high school.


So as you can imagine, it was a huge celebration. Oh, my goodness. We went down to the river, and we just partied--

--and then not just once.

Not just once-- I love it.

So I came out of this with the feeling that I'm going to be one of those people who's going to survive this. Did I think about dying? Heck, yeah. Frankly, I think I thought more about losing my hair, but I was a teenager. [CHUCKLES] I don't know.

Were you ever concerned that you would get cancer again?

The short answer is no. Sloan Kettering released me from their care after five years. At the time, because I was one of the first cohort to be cured, they didn't really know about long-term effects. It was only later that they'd started discovering the radiation we got can lead to a second cancer.

So you met my dad. You dated. How did he react to finding out that you were a cancer survivor?

He had one of the best reactions, and that's probably when I knew I was going to marry him.

He was like, oh, OK, so you had cancer. Well, let me tell you about me. It never was an issue. And I think, if anything, for him it was, wow, she's a really strong person. So for him, I think it ended up being a point of attraction.

That's wonderful. So you guys got married, you had us, and my sister and I, Kathleen, were about a year and a half when you got your breast cancer diagnosis. What led to you going to the doctor?

I remember feeling a lump in my breast. Being proactive, I said, let me call my gynecologist. Her response was, oh, you're not old enough. Just let me know if it's still there in six months. And I remember going to sleep that night, and I had a dream, Kal.

And in the dream, I was in this room, and I was looking down at you and your sister and your father. I could see you all, I could hear you all, but you couldn't see me. And it was the worst feeling in my life. And I realized that I had died.

And I woke up from that dream, and I said to your dad, I'm going to the doctor. So I did. And the radiologist puts the film up, and he says, this does not look good. You've got to get this taken care of. And long story short, they took the tumor out. And I'll never forget the oncologist. I was sitting down with him, and I said, I don't know if I can go through two years of chemo. Do I really need the chemo? And he looked at me. He says, two years? Sophia, we only have to do about six months. And then I burst out laughing. I was so happy.

How different was it compared to your first time going through cancer treatment?

So now I'm a 30-something. I have these twin daughters, a year and a half old, and my husband, and a full-time job. I'm like, holy cow, can I do this again? Of course I have to. I have to be there for my family.

The whole landscape had changed in terms of support. People were bringing us meals. And I remember walking into Duke and seeing this sign, "Duke Cancer Patient Support Program," and saying, what is that? And then figuring out those were social workers and counselors that were there to help cancer patients. I mean, we didn't have any of that back in the '70s.

How did your second cancer really morph your life?

I started volunteering through the Cancer Patient Support Program. And the director said to me, have you ever thought of going into social work? So I applied and was accepted at UNC Chapel Hill. I assumed I was going to leave it at that, and then become a social work clinician.

And something happened. I fell in love with research and decided, you know what, I'm going to do this for a living, because I can help people. And I had that one degree of separation, so I wasn't in the cancer world every day. And for me, that was a good fit. I really enjoy my research.

How do you think your life would have been if you hadn't been diagnosed with cancer?

What I describe sounds like I had a lot of challenges, and it was really tough to go through. But I wouldn't trade where I am right now with anybody else for anything. I'm completely happy. And whether it was a cancer diagnosis or an accident or whatever put me here, I'm just really grateful. I recognize the gift that cancer brought me and made me who I am.

As a daughter of a two-time cancer survivor, it's certainly been so inspiring. That's the major reason why I myself am in the research field now. I'm in awe of you and just so proud. Thank you for sharing this with me.

Thank you for that. You're beautiful.

You're beautiful too.

Conquer Cancer donors have supported nearly 1,500 research projects like the clinical trial that saved Sophia's life. Now in her 50s, Sophia dedicates her career to helping patients. You can help patients by donating to Conquer Cancer. Make a gift today at