4-year-old Riverbank cancer victim takes surgery, radiation treatment in stride

The young life of Sophia Cortez of Riverbank is portrayed in her family's photographs.

There she is going down the slide with no hands, attending a Modesto Nuts game with her dad in July, and serving as a flower girl at "Uncle Dawg and Aunt April's" wedding last year.

By contrast, snapshots from last month show the 4-year-old sitting on a hospital bed or posing for the camera with her surgeon at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.

One thing never changes in the pictures — she always has a big smile.

"She just acts like this is what every kid does when they are 4," said Monica Cortez, her mother. "She is handling the treatment better than do a lot of kids in her situation."

Life changed for the Cortez family in late September when Sophia's parents took her to the emergency room at Memorial Medical Center. For several days, she had been having trouble keeping her balance at home and her pediatrician started treating her for vertigo.

Her parents took her to the emergency room when she developed a fever Sept. 29. Diagnostic scanning revealed a more severe problem: Sophia had a golf-ball sized tumor in her cerebellum near the back of her brain.

She was flown to UCSF, where surgery was performed the next morning to remove the tumor. As her parents awaited the pathology tests, they hoped the tumor was benign, but the tests determined it was medulloblastoma, an aggressive, fast-growing cancer.

Because it is such an aggressive cancer, her treatment is also aggressive, Sophia's parents said.

For the past five weeks, Sophia has received daily radiation treatments at UCSF to kill the remaining cancer cells in that area of her brain. Every weekday morning she has marched down the hall to the hospital's oncology department, where she is given anesthesia.

She is placed on a table with her head held in a mask, as a machine rotates around her to deliver doses of radiation.

Sophia is scheduled to complete the treatment this week, take a break from the hospital and then start 12 months of chemotherapy in late December.

"She has not been very afraid during all of this," her mother said by telephone from UCSF. "She is doing so well that it helps us to be OK. We meet families here where the kids are not doing so well."

Sophia has a good chance of beating the cancer if she responds to treatment. The five-year survival rate for pediatric patients ranges from 50 percent to 80 percent, depending on the severity of the tumor.

She came out of the surgery with good balance and no side effects. Some children who have a brain tumor are unable to walk or talk after surgery to remove the tumor.

The long-term side effects may include developmental or learning disabilities.

"I don't want it to change her personality," said Arturo Cortez, her father and a respiratory therapist at Memorial Medical Center. "So far, she is acting like herself."

The radiation suppresses her immune system, so Sophia and her mother stay in housing not far from the hospital when she is not in treatment. Her parents took Sophia on outings (when her blood counts were still strong) to see the gorillas at San Francisco Zoo and let her climb on the play equipment at Golden Gate Park.

Arturo Cortez has continued to take their 6-year-old daughter, Camille, to school in Modesto while working to support the family.

The hospital bills are mostly covered by insurance. But the family will have travel and other assorted costs when Sophia has chemotherapy next year.

His co-workers are holding a fund-raiser Saturday to assist the family in their battle with Sophia's cancer.

"It opens your eyes to the fact that anything is possible, good or bad, in this world," Monica Cortez said of her daughter's illness. "We have never thought 'why us?' We've had to focus on getting her better."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.