Two days before her 17th birthday, Sophie Ruiz was diagnosed with Stage IV high-risk neuroblastoma cancer. Then a junior in high school, the West Hempfield, Penn., teen went through five rounds of chemotherapy, four rounds of immunotherapy, a stem cell transplant and proton radiation therapy, spending the majority of the school year in the pediatric cancer unit at Hershey Hospital (now Penn State Children’s Hospital). At the start of her senior year, Sophie was battling pneumonia and still recovering from her stem cell transplant. Although she was too tired to attend the homecoming dance, Sophie was thrilled to dress up and create a memorable photo shoot with her boyfriend, friends and family. Now that she’s built up her strength, the 18 year old plans to attend Penn State University’s THON Weekend in State College, Feb. 15-17, for a 46-hour, no-sit, no-sleep marathon. Every year, the event raises millions of dollars to support kids like Sophie, paying 100% of her bills (post-insurance) and funding life-saving research. Below is Sophie’s story, as told to PEOPLE.
On Sept. 20, 2017, I went into the hospital because of a paraspinal mass; six days later I was told the mass was cancerous. The date of my official diagnosis was Oct. 4, 2017: Stage IV high risk neuroblastoma cancer. I remember exactly what was going through my head: “This can’t be happening to me. I can’t have CANCER. That’s impossible.” I was basically denying that my diagnosis was real.
Get push notifications with news, features and more.
You’ll get the latest updates on this topic in your browser notifications.
I started with five rounds of chemo. When my main tumor had shrunk enough, I had a 7-hour surgery to remove it from my spine. Then I had four rounds of immunotherapy. Over the summer I had my stem cell transplant, which involved many days of the harshest chemotherapy a person can endure. After the chemo was complete, I was injected with my own stem cells. I was in the hospital for three weeks. After that, I had a month of proton radiation therapy. At the moment, I take an oral treatment called Isotretinoin.
When school started in Sept. 2018 I had pneumonia, which left me tired all the time. I wasn’t up for doing things outside of the house and was still recovering from my stem cell transplant. But despite being extremely tired, I wanted to take some nice photos with my boyfriend Haydn as a way to remember my senior year homecoming. I was so happy that I had the opportunity to dress up, put makeup on, and get some cute pictures! I was just excited that I was able to do that, since I’d been in the hospital getting treatment the year before. Although my strength and stamina have increased, I am not yet able to do much dancing, walking, or standing for long periods of time.
Haydn and I have been together for a year now. When we first started talking, I asked him to hang out and we instantly clicked. We’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since. He even woke up at 4 a.m. so he could be with me for my big surgery, and he waited in the waiting room for seven hours while I was in the operating room. He came into my life at the perfect time, and I can’t thank him enough. Throughout our relationship, we have matured a lot. We’ve been through so much together. He has seen me at my lowest point in life and he was by my side through it all, calling me beautiful even when I was throwing up in a bucket!
I was nervous about how my best friends would respond to my diagnosis, but they jumped into action as soon as they found out. My friends Cameron Barto, Tobey Prime and Catherine Wise made shirts saying #SophieStrong to raise money for Four Diamonds [the charity at Penn State Children’s Hospital that distributes and manages the funds raised at THON]. Friends came to visit me in the hospital, bringing me blankets, fuzzy socks, books, art supplies and my favorite food. The community cooked my family meals, which was a huge help. My friends don’t see me as a sick person. They still see me as Sophie, which is great. I try not to talk about it too much because I feel like cancer is such a big, scary subject for a lot of people, but for me it’s a reality. I realize I am used to talking about it because it’s been my world for more than a year.
Throughout this journey I’ve definitely grown closer to my parents, especially my mom, who has been with me every day from 9 a.m. to 9:30 pm. Needless to say, we have a lot of time to talk! My teachers, principals and my school guidance counselor have made a huge effort, too. They have all tried to make it as easy as possible for me to get through my last year of high school and to make up what I missed when I was gone. Graduating on time is a big priority for me. In college, I’d like to study child development and child psychology, eventually becoming a child life specialist in a pediatric oncology unit. My child life specialist, Haley, was a huge inspiration for me. She’s just a ray of sunshine — I’d love to be that person for other patients.
I keep my friends and supporters updated on Instagram, even though it can feel a little superficial at times. I also want to post about my reality. When my hair fell out for the first time, I always wore a beanie to cover my head. I was so self conscious about not having hair, and I felt as if everyone was looking at me. It was sad to lose my hair, but I was ready for it to be shaved. The second time it fell out, though, I didn’t care when people would stare at me in public or at school; I’d just smile at them and continue to do whatever I was doing. I am happy with how my hair looks now.
I also made a post about my hospital room because it was my home for most of last year. But instead of making it just about me and the hospital, I wanted other people to be able to relate. I told readers to stay positive and grow from their negative experiences, because that’s how I’m getting through my journey with cancer. When I’m feeling down, I try to reflect on everything I’ve been through.
I am a changed person from all of this. I am thankful for every single day that I have on this Earth, and I think about that often. I was forced to grow up. I had to make decisions for myself that most teenagers would never even think about making. While my friends were worried about how much homework they had, I was worried about fighting for my life — because that’s what I had to do. That really taught me to be an adult and look at the big picture.
Right now, I’ve never been happier. Even though all of this has happened to me and I could be sad about it, I choose to focus on the amazing things that life has to offer. Being bitter about something that I can’t change won’t help a thing, so I choose to wake up every day and be thankful. Life is so amazing and it should never be taken for granted.