Think back to those teenage years. Feeling self-conscious about your appearance, dealing with social anxiety, hormonal changes, and the struggle for more independence. Now, add a cancer diagnosis into the mix, and you have an inkling of what Sofia Tomassini lived through in 2019. She vividly remembers her reaction:
“I was diagnosed two days before my 14th birthday with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The biggest question I had was “why me”?
Her mother Sandra recalls the beginning of the journey. “It was around Halloween, Sofia
told us that she felt a lump over her collarbone. Our family doctor recommended she get an ultrasound. The initial results were not what the doctor expected, so we went for a second one. A throat specialist looked at it and realized we need to do a biopsy, urgently. It was the longest 2 to 3 weeks of our lives, waiting for those results.”
“The toughest part was the in-between,” Sofia’s father Frank recalls. The family went
back and forth, “between being positive, to planning for the what if’s, to thinking that it could be much worse.” After the diagnosis, Sofia entered the Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto, and the tight-knit family shifted their mindset to the task at hand. Younger sister Lola remembers first hearing the news. “My parents just sat me down and told me Sofia has been diagnosed with cancer, but it's treatable – and this is what we're going to do.”
Sandra describes the treatment schedule: “Friday, they called it ‘the kitchen sink’ where they just give you all the chemo medicines. This was followed the next day with two injections, followed by another two the next day, and then the following Friday, another injection. That completed one round.”
While at SickKids Sofia first learned about Look Good Feel Better and their Teen Workshop. She decided to attend a workshop with her sister Lola, to learn about skincare, makeup tips and hair alternatives. Sofia credits the warm and welcoming workshop volunteers with helping her feel, “less self-conscious while going through treatment.” Sharing the workshop with her sister made it even more special. “I had my sister with me, so it was always easier with her. I think it's great for young girls, especially that are my age. It makes you feel better. It made the treatment go by faster.” Sandra describes the workshop as “a real bonding experience” for her daughters.
Sofia also practised self-care to help keep herself strong. “Mentally, I had to focus on myself, and I had my family there for me, but social media has a huge impact today on kids, so I put my phone down. I just made sure to stay positive.”
“In my school there was even more pressure to look a certain way: all the girls have long hair;
all the boys have short hair. That was the only thing that scared me – losing my hair.
That was a big thing for me. It was OK to have short hair. It was a choice that I could control.” Sofia showed great maturity while facing appearance-related changes, such as losing her hair, and will always remember one gesture of support, “My grandfather shaved his head for me,
so it was very rewarding and nice to have somebody else with such short hair.” Frank was impressed by Sofia’s choice, “I’m proud of her for making that decision on her own. I think letting go of that worry, and not being concerned about hair anymore was liberating for her.”
Frank is proud of how the family rallied to face the challenge. “We went directly into a mode of what do we need to do to get from here, to back to full health?” Everyone had a role to play: Frank focused on Sofia’s nutritional needs, Sandra tracked medications, and Lola kept everyone on schedule. Sandra remembers the optimism, “We had a lot of support. We had each other, so we knew we were going to be okay.”
After Sofia’s treatment, the Tomassini family found out two neighbourhood teens were also dealing with cancer. Sofia offered to be a resource for them. “We related in having cancer and how we grew up. We just chatted when they needed somebody else to talk to.”
What advice do the Tomassinis now offer to families beginning their own cancer journey? For Sofia it’s the power of staying optimistic. “Don't think ‘why me’?
Think about, ‘I'm going to be done with this! I'm going to beat this!’ Focus on yourself, stay happy, eliminate all distractions possible. Stay positive. That helped me.”
Mom, Sandra recommends creating a strong network of family and friends: “Build that foundation… make sure you have a good support system.”
Sofia’s strong and constant companion Lola enjoyed distracting and laughing with her sister as she was in and out of the hospital. Lola’s message is simple: “Just be yourself, don't think about your sibling having cancer. Just think of them as your sibling. Be strong for them.”
For Sofia, her cancer journey was integral to where she is heading in the future. Inspired by her medical team, she has decided to become a doctor herself so she can help others. “Now that I am 16, I can start thinking about universities and that path of being an Oncologist.”
Today, Frank looks back on the family’s cancer experience thoughtfully. “These things can be part of your journey, part of your story. It will help make you stronger to help you be able to overcome adversity and change when you need to.”
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