Voice over: 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.
Kalli Smith: 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.
Sophia Smith: 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 in to 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.
Kalli Smith: I don't think I've ever heard that part of the story before.
Sophia Smith: 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.
Kalli Smith: How long were you in chemo and how long until your doctor finally told you you were cancer-free?
Sophia Smith: I was in a clinical trial at Sloan Kettering, that 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 like 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, [laughter] and not just once.
Kalli Smith: [laughter] Not just once. I love it.
Sophia Smith: 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. I don't know.
Kalli Smith: Were you ever concerned that you would get cancer again?
Sophia Smith: 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 started discovering the radiation we got can lead to a second cancer.
Kalli Smith: So you met my dad, you dated. How did he react to finding out that you were a cancer survivor?
Sophia Smith: He had one of the best reactions, and that's probably when I knew I was going to marry him. He was like, "Oh. Okay. 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.
Kalli Smith: 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?
Sophia Smith: 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 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 them 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 like burst out laughing. I was so happy.
Kalli Smith: Aw. How different was it compared to your first time going through cancer treatment?
Sophia Smith: 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.
Kalli Smith: How did your second cancer really morph your life?
Sophia Smith: 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.
Kalli Smith: How do you think your life would have been if you hadn't been diagnosed with cancer?
Sophia Smith: 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.
Kalli Smith: As a daughter of a two-time cancer survivor, it's certainly been so inspiring. It'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.
Sophia Smith: Thank you for that. You're beautiful.
Kalli Smith: You're beautiful too.
Voice over: Conquer Cancer Donors have supported nearly 1,500 research projects like the clinical trial that saved Sophia's life. Now in her 50s, Sofia dedicates her career to helping patients. You can help patients by donating to Conquer Cancer. Make a gift today at conquer.org/donate.