By Sara Bondell - October 04, 2020
At age 16, Sophia Hurtado was your typical teenager. She was a cheerleader who did well in school and enjoyed her busy social life.
So, when she started experiencing mood swings, weight gain and fatigue, doctors assumed it was “normal teenage girl stuff.”
But what she was experiencing was anything but normal.
“I was a healthy girl,” she said. “In cheerleading I am a base and I was lifting girls into the air and catching them in my arms. I was running at least a mile a day. But the weight gain came so rapidly and soon I was winded going up stairs.”
Soon, high blood pressure landed Sophia in the emergency room, where scans found a 16-centimeter mass on her pancreas. Sophia was diagnosed with a stage 4 neuroendocrine pancreatic tumor with metastasis to her liver. The tumor was also causing Cushing Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that causes weight gain and high blood pressure.
“When they told me it was pancreatic cancer my knees buckled,” said Sophia’s mom, Maryanne. “We have read books and seen movies with kids with cancer, but you don’t realize until you are in it that it’s the fight of your life.”
Sophia travelled to Boston for treatment, but after two failed rounds of chemotherapy, she was in hospice care.
“I had such bad neuropathy in my legs that I couldn’t move them and was in a wheelchair,” said Sophia. “I spent most of my day in a hospital bed that was set up in my bedroom. The mental health side of it all was very difficult, you are just not yourself.”
With no other options, Sophia and her family, who live in South Florida, found Moffitt Cancer Center. There, she was started on a recently FDA-approved treatment called peptide receptor radionuclide therapy. When injected into a patient, the treatment binds specifically to neuroendocrine tumor cells, delivering a high dose of targeted radiation to the cancer.
“In view of Sophia’s young age and medical condition, we thought that this targeted therapy with an amount of radiation adjusted to better suit her body was the best option available. This personalized approach helps control the disease without causing too many side effects”, said Dr. Ghassan El-Haddad, a nuclear oncologist in charge of these therapies. “The goal is to slow down the progression of cancer and provide good quality of life”.
Sophia was given four rounds of the treatment. “I feel great,” she said. “I began walking again and am doing physical therapy.”
“It’s amazing to see her now,” said Maryanne. “At her lowest last year, we were convinced this was going to be her last Christmas, and I remember praying and just wanting your child to live, but also not wanting her to suffer.”
The success of Sophia’s treatment relies on the collaboration between Moffitt—doctors in the Gastrointestinal Oncology, Interventional Radiology, Radionuclide Therapy and Endocrinology Programs—and Sophia’s pediatric medical oncology team in South Florida.
“One of the most important factors in Sophia’s care is the multidisciplinary team,” said Dr. Mintallah Haider, one of the oncologists on Sophia’s care team. “The different specialists provide insight and we can all learn from each other. It also provides a check-in, if you will, to view her treatment globally as each perspective is shared.”
While Sophia feels better than she has in months, her recent scans show some disease progression. Her care team is working together to decide the next best steps for treatment and to look for a new clinical trial.
“When you talk about cancer and treatment results, everyone wants a black and white answer, but it is not always so clear,” said Haider. “This wasn’t what we were hoping for, but there is something to be done about it. That is why we do these scans, so we can intervene before someone is symptomatic or too weak to tolerate therapies.”
If needed, Sophia can have four more peptide receptor radionuclide treatments in the future. She says no matter what she will remain positive.
“I think of myself and I think how did I ever get stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” said Sophia. “I have always asked and wondered, why me? And my mom says, ‘Why not you? Why can’t you be the miracle?’ And I hope this is true and God chose me for a reason.”
For Maryanne, it’s no surprise her daughter is continuing to fight. She thinks back to the strong-willed toddler that often pushed her to her limits. “I would tell my mom I don’t know what I am going to do and she would say, ‘Don’t break her will, she is going to need it someday.’ And I think that is just what makes Sophia incredible.”
Sophia is continuing school virtually and plans on graduating from high school this spring. She aspires to become a doctor, social worker or therapist—a career where she can use her own experiences to help others.
In the meantime, Sophia wants to continue telling her story and urging young women to be advocates for their health. “If you think something is wrong, go to the doctor and don’t stop until you find the right doctor,” she said. “Do what’s best for you and always listen to your body.”