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Somebody That I Used to Know
SOPHIE CANCER JOURNEY
At just 30 years old, Sophie has been in remission from cancer for 23 years, but the trauma of surviving childhood cancer can’t be ignored, despite Sophie’s best efforts to stifle the memories.

I don’t remember sledding with my brother down our driveway on that winter day, just a few weeks before I turned seven. I don’t remember hitting the snow bank, and I don’t remember my parents taking me to the hospital.  But I do remember waking up with an IV in my wrist, the first of many, and being confused and scared. I remember someone telling me I had a tumor. I know my mom was there.

My next memory is me waking up again, this time in a different hospital. The surgeon had removed my left kidney along with the tumor that wrapped around it. There were at least a dozen pieces of silicone tape over the stitches, covering the red and purple scar that traveled across my abdomen. The tape was itchy; I peeled it off early.

Memories of my childhood illness are muddled, few and far between. It was a traumatic time for my family, and afterward, I subconsciously closed the door, locking out the emotions those memories elicited. The thing about memories is that even when you think you’ve forgotten them, they still survive somewhere deep inside. 


I was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma.  My chances of survival were not good, but if I knew that, I’m not sure I understood what it meant. As a seven-year-old, I felt pain and I felt fear, but I couldn’t conceptualize dying. I was lucky for that.  

My mom and I moved to Chicago for six months for treatment while my dad stayed home in Maine with my two siblings. One of the nurses said I was given “everything but the kitchen sink.” What I was actually given was radiation to my left side (where the tumor had been), three stem-cell rescues, a bone marrow transplant, and a whole lot of chemo. I was the fifth child to follow this trial protocol. 

It wasn’t all bad. There were jokes played on doctors and hospital masks decorated with dog and cat noses. There were trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo to watch the polar bears swim and inside access to see the baby gorilla nursery. There were amazing nurses and doctors and people we met at Chicago’s Ronald McDonald House where we stayed while I went through treatment. 

The thing about memories is that even when you think you’ve forgotten them, they still survive somewhere deep inside.

There was also another little girl at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago who also had neuroblastoma and was given the same treatment. She was four years younger than me, and even though I didn’t really know her, I felt like her older sister. She always smiled.  I thought if she could be brave then I could be brave, too. She was in remission for six years before she relapsed and died at age the age of 10. The news was devastating, but I did not acknowledge how unsettling and scary it was for me.   

The mind is strong, and mine worked hard to protect me from the constant fear and trauma of the tests and tubes of treatment.  I went as far as to invent my own language—“soosipasio”—as a defense mechanism, and for a while, I would only communicate in that tongue while in the hospital. My imagination was my safety.

Days went by and then years, and now here I am, 23 years in remission, and I’m just now starting to unpack the deeply buried trauma of my childhood. I am reconnecting with myself, that little girl, in a language only the two of us share. I’m telling her that she is brave and so strong. That this body we share is still the same body it was all those years ago. It has grown and strengthened and changed, but it still holds that trauma. Instead of running away or ignoring her, I’m listening. I’m drawing my own roadmap, and I’m inviting my anxiety to ride along with me. 


 width=Sophie Tsairis is a writer, rock climber and trail runner in Bozeman, Montana.

Days went by and then years, and now here I am, 23 years in remission, and I’m just now starting to unpack the deeply buried trauma of my childhood. I am reconnecting with myself, that little girl, in a language only the two of us share. I’m telling her that she is brave and so strong. That this body we share is still the same body it was all those years ago. It has grown and strengthened and changed, but it still holds that trauma. Instead of running away or ignoring her, I’m listening. I’m drawing my own roadmap, and I’m inviting my anxiety to ride along with me. 


 width=Sophie Tsairis is a writer, rock climber and trail runner in Bozeman, Montana.


I’m hanging in my climbing harness a few hundred feet up Half Dome, a vertical face of granite rock in Yosemite National Park, and I can’t breathe. It is not because of the exposure or a fear of heights or the epic view. The sensation of my climbing harness pushing against my left rib cage feels wrong. I try to relax, focus on where I am and the climbing ahead of me. My breaths are frequent, but shallow, and the more I try to breathe, the less satisfying my breaths feel, and the more lightheaded I get. I’m trying to direct my fight-or-flight reaction, but I’ve lost control. My inner dialogue has taken off on its own. 

There is no way this is normal, you have to get to the hospital. Maybe I have cancer again, maybe it is in my lungs, maybe it’s just been hiding all of these years. 

My mind takes off, and I’m imagining the moment the doctor tells me the cancer returned. I imagine telling my boyfriend, Kale, who at that moment is perched 60 meters above me, belaying me up the climb, with no idea as to what is taking me so long. I imagine telling my sister and my brother and my parents. I imagine it all, from diagnosis to my funeral. I am weeping now, having given up on clinging to the rock. Now I truly can’t breathe. 

There was a time that this make-believe scenario was my reality, but back then, I did not have the capacity to express the emotion I feel now. 

My tears are cathartic. Consciously, I reign myself back in and start climbing again. The climb is hard, and I have to focus on my movement and my foot placements, trusting my body. It’s distracting, and by the time I make it up to Kale, I’ve forgotten that I couldn’t breathe. 

Cancer has helped me live my life to its fullest. Cancer has also left me feeling alone, anxious, undeserving, and downright scared.

These episodes of difficulty breathing began when I was young, but have become more frequent and debilitating over the past few years. Sometimes they are triggered by something obvious, like a trip to the hospital or an illness, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. The anxiety stays for days or sometimes even weeks. It has taken me a long time and several rounds of tests and trips to Urgent Care to accept that these symptoms might be anxiety. I now understand the mind’s power over the body.   

Growing up, I never felt like an anxious person. I was never particularly scared of death, or failure, or what tomorrow would bring. I’ve pushed myself to live in the moment, to challenge myself both physically and emotionally, and to find happiness and joy wherever I can.  To some extent, the cliché is on point; cancer has helped me live my life to its fullest. Cancer has also left me feeling alone, anxious, undeserving, and downright scared. 

In some ways, having been so young when I got sick allowed me to thrive in remission, to take back my life, to pursue the dreams of a seven-year-old—like having a horse for a best friend and building forts in the woods with my siblings. My survival instincts forced me to bury my experiences deep inside me, because that is what I needed to do at the time. 

Days went by and then years, and now here I am, 23 years in remission, and I’m just now starting to unpack the deeply buried trauma of my childhood. I am reconnecting with myself, that little girl, in a language only the two of us share. I’m telling her that she is brave and so strong. That this body we share is still the same body it was all those years ago. It has grown and strengthened and changed, but it still holds that trauma. Instead of running away or ignoring her, I’m listening. I’m drawing my own roadmap, and I’m inviting my anxiety to ride along with me. 


 width=Sophie Tsairis is a writer, rock climber and trail runner in Bozeman, Montana.


Nobody gives you a roadmap for what to do after you’ve survived cancer. I’m now 30 years old; I’ve been in remission for 23 years. After 10 years in remission, I was declared cancer-free, but this liberation didn’t come with tools to deal with post-trauma anxiety. My doctors set me free in the world to grow up as a normal kid. Nobody follows my health issues anymore, and I don’t have doctors that know my medical history. Having been one of the first children to receive my treatment, the future felt very uncertain. Nobody could tell me what to expect as I got older, and nobody warned me that anxiety from my past might sneak back into my life in a very real and present way. 

As a seven-year-old, I felt pain and I felt fear, but I couldn’t conceptualize dying. I was lucky for that.

Sometimes, when I think of myself all those years ago as a sick little girl, I imagine her as someone else, like an old friend or someone I used to know. But cancer shaped me. It is a part of who I was, who I became, and who I will be. When something like cancer hits you out of nowhere, it changes your life forever. While most people might shrug off aches and pains and strange feelings in their bodies, I entertain the idea that it could be something as terrifying as cancer, because that has been my reality. It seems so wildly improbable that it could really just be gone for good… forever.


I’m hanging in my climbing harness a few hundred feet up Half Dome, a vertical face of granite rock in Yosemite National Park, and I can’t breathe. It is not because of the exposure or a fear of heights or the epic view. The sensation of my climbing harness pushing against my left rib cage feels wrong. I try to relax, focus on where I am and the climbing ahead of me. My breaths are frequent, but shallow, and the more I try to breathe, the less satisfying my breaths feel, and the more lightheaded I get. I’m trying to direct my fight-or-flight reaction, but I’ve lost control. My inner dialogue has taken off on its own. 

There is no way this is normal, you have to get to the hospital. Maybe I have cancer again, maybe it is in my lungs, maybe it’s just been hiding all of these years. 

My mind takes off, and I’m imagining the moment the doctor tells me the cancer returned. I imagine telling my boyfriend, Kale, who at that moment is perched 60 meters above me, belaying me up the climb, with no idea as to what is taking me so long. I imagine telling my sister and my brother and my parents. I imagine it all, from diagnosis to my funeral. I am weeping now, having given up on clinging to the rock. Now I truly can’t breathe. 

There was a time that this make-believe scenario was my reality, but back then, I did not have the capacity to express the emotion I feel now. 

My tears are cathartic. Consciously, I reign myself back in and start climbing again. The climb is hard, and I have to focus on my movement and my foot placements, trusting my body. It’s distracting, and by the time I make it up to Kale, I’ve forgotten that I couldn’t breathe. 

Cancer has helped me live my life to its fullest. Cancer has also left me feeling alone, anxious, undeserving, and downright scared.

These episodes of difficulty breathing began when I was young, but have become more frequent and debilitating over the past few years. Sometimes they are triggered by something obvious, like a trip to the hospital or an illness, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. The anxiety stays for days or sometimes even weeks. It has taken me a long time and several rounds of tests and trips to Urgent Care to accept that these symptoms might be anxiety. I now understand the mind’s power over the body.   

Growing up, I never felt like an anxious person. I was never particularly scared of death, or failure, or what tomorrow would bring. I’ve pushed myself to live in the moment, to challenge myself both physically and emotionally, and to find happiness and joy wherever I can.  To some extent, the cliché is on point; cancer has helped me live my life to its fullest. Cancer has also left me feeling alone, anxious, undeserving, and downright scared. 

In some ways, having been so young when I got sick allowed me to thrive in remission, to take back my life, to pursue the dreams of a seven-year-old—like having a horse for a best friend and building forts in the woods with my siblings. My survival instincts forced me to bury my experiences deep inside me, because that is what I needed to do at the time. 

Days went by and then years, and now here I am, 23 years in remission, and I’m just now starting to unpack the deeply buried trauma of my childhood. I am reconnecting with myself, that little girl, in a language only the two of us share. I’m telling her that she is brave and so strong. That this body we share is still the same body it was all those years ago. It has grown and strengthened and changed, but it still holds that trauma. Instead of running away or ignoring her, I’m listening. I’m drawing my own roadmap, and I’m inviting my anxiety to ride along with me. 


 width=Sophie Tsairis is a writer, rock climber and trail runner in Bozeman, Montana.

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