Sophie Zambrano wore her Wonder Woman outfit May 9, 2019, the day she rang the bell signaling the successful end of chemotherapy for a rare form of kidney cancer. How fitting, for children who undergo cancer treatment do so with powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals.

At the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, that includes a fourth-grade firecracker from Cornelius. Five years after finishing chemotherapy, Sophie, 10, still talks about the grape Popsicles she slurped after each treatment. And how many cancer survivors say they’d like to have their birthday party at the clinic so long as it doesn’t involve chemo?

“If I had to pick a favorite place to go,” Sophie said, “it would be here. Everybody knows me and I know them.”

Maggie Zambrano smiles. Mom understandably would just as soon never visit a pediatric cancer clinic again. But she knows exactly what Sophie means. “Everyone was so caring and attentive. They are all angels.”

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‘Is this a dream?’

Sophie Zambrano treatment

It began in October 2019, the day Sophie and her father, Juan Zambrano, went to the bakery to pick up a fruit passion cake for her fifth birthday party. Sophie needed to use the bathroom. There was blood in her urine. Five days after an ultrasound found the tumor on her kidney (it’s called Wilms tumor), pediatric surgeons at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital removed the kidney.

Wilms tumor is a rare, highly treatable form of kidney cancer that mostly affects children ages 5 and under. It usually occurs in one kidney. According to the American Cancer Society, 500 to 600 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Some children do not experience any symptoms. Others experience pain, swelling or a mass in the stomach area, fever, high blood pressure, low blood cell level or, like Sophie, blood in the urine.

“Is this a dream?” Maggie Zambrano remembers asking herself.

What followed surgery was chemotherapy and related treatment over 19 weeks. “During chemo,” Maggie says, “I would always hold her.” A typical visit lasted several hours. A strawberry milkshake and six-piece nuggets from Chick-fil-A on the drive home became its own form of medicine.

Sophie Zambrano last chemo day.

This was a little girl who had just turned 5 years old. She couldn’t be expected to understand what was happening to her. All she knew was that the needle used to access her port hurt. She became nauseated and weak. She lost weight. Her hair fell out.

She wondered if this was her fault. And anyway, why couldn’t she be at home playing with her sister Molly, age 3 then and 8 now. How they loved making things with blocks and dressing up, Sophie as Wonder Woman (of course!) and Molly as Elsa from “Frozen.”

Dr. Joanne McManaman remembers Sophie shedding her fair share of anxious tears. Sophie’s mom remembers the one thing she could do to dry those tears. Hold her daughter tight.

‘Think about what they go through’

Zambrano family

Fast forward five years. Sophie is cancer-free. Her annual visits to the St. Jude affiliate clinic feel more like a family reunion (no more needles!) than a checkup. She’s acing fourth grade at J.V. Washam Elementary School in Cornelius. She can’t wait to see her grandparents – her dad’s parents are in Colombia, her mom’s in Poland. She enjoys every bite of her lo mein with chicken during family dinners at P.F. Chang’s. She plays tennis, soccer and rides her scooter. The Wonder Woman costume she wore to the bell-ringing is in the attic. And in case readers are wondering, “I’m a beach person,” says this 10-year-old-going-on 25.

Best of all, when asked whether this chapter in her life changed her in any way, Sophie gives the questioner a look. “How can I lose my personality over chemo?” she said.

And right there, the answer to that question, is what makes Sophie and every other child who takes on cancer a hero.

“Think about what they go through,” McManaman said. “They have to grow up very quickly. They’re here with adults. They’re not playing with their friends. They should be proud they got through this.”

Heroes?

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Absolutely.”

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Treatment for Wilms tumor often involves surgery and chemotherapy, as it did with Sophie. Some patients receive radiation therapy as well. Studies have shown a cure rate of more than 85% with prompt medical attention.

The St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital is one of eight affiliate clinics in the U.S., and the only one in the Carolinas. It is located in Charlotte, across from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. The clinic treats patients up to age 22 for cancer or blood disorders. Some 2,300 patients received care there in 2023.