Paying It Forward: Sophie’s Story

It began with “a flash of silver.” That’s what Beth Lee, mother of 21-month-old Sophie Beckerman-Lee, saw in her daughter’s right eye on Labor Day weekend 1997. The silvery light appeared and disappeared, only visible to Beth when she looked at her child from certain angles. Finally, though, in a restaurant bathroom where the light was low, Beth was shocked to see that “Sophie’s pupil was entirely dilated and the ‘silver’ area was huge.”

Sophie's Story: Sophie with mom and dad
Sophie in 1997 with her mother Beth (left) and father, Adam (right)

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, Beth — in the middle of the New York City gladiator sport known as “getting your kid into preschool” — dropped everything to call Sophie’s pediatrician. The doctor asked to see her right away. Beth gathered up Sophie and they met Sophie’s father and Beth’s husband, Adam Beckerman, at the doctor’s office. An examination revealed that it was highly likely Sophie had a pediatric eye cancer called retinoblastoma. The doctor referred the family to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who saw them immediately.
 
The ophthalmologist confirmed the diagnosis. “I remember him saying ‘I’m 95 percent certain it’s retinoblastoma but I want you to see David Abramson, he’s the best there is,’” says Beth.
 
She returned home to find her desk littered with the materials of preschool applications, right where she’d left them. “The nursery school stuff seemed frozen in time — the time before cancer,” she recalls.
 

From a Flash of Silver to a Flash of Hope

David Abramson is an ophthalmic oncologist, a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer on the surface of the eye, in the eye, and in the tissues around the eye. He was then and is now an internationally recognized leader in the field, responsible for introducing many new treatments for retinoblastoma that have been adopted by cancer centers worldwide.
 
Dr. Abramson’s examination reconfirmed the original diagnosis: the cancer was in the back of Sophie’s eye and the “flash of silver” was light reflecting off the tumor. But he was also able to tell Beth and Adam that she retained good vision in the eye and he was prepared to try to save it. And not just that: “I will save your daughter’s life,” Dr. Abramson assured them.
 
Memorial Sloan Kettering pediatric oncologist Ira Dunkel first administered two rounds of carboplatin, a chemotherapeutic agent, in an effort to shrink the tumor. If it worked, then Dr. Abramson would be able to place a small radioactive disk into the eye to destroy whatever cancer remained. Unfortunately, while the chemotherapy was effective in shrinking the tumor, it also caused it to fragment into smaller pieces, making the use of the disk impossible.
 
Beth and Adam were now faced with a decision no parent ever wants to contemplate: Should they consent to a course of external beam radiation that had about a 70 percent chance of succeeding or should they have their daughter’s eye removed, which pretty much would guarantee a cure. They agonized over the decision and finally determined that Sophie’s eye should be removed. “There’s not a day that goes by that I am not thankful we made that choice, hard as it was,” says Beth. 
 
“And seeing those MSK doctors and nurses in action was among the most inspiring and humbling times of our lives,” adds Adam. “The experience shaped our values and priorities forever.”
 

Sophie Writes a Book — and a Chance Encounter

On her seventh birthday Sophie received a “make your own book” kit that allowed her to write and illustrate a book and have it professionally printed and bound. “It was my idea to write about my experience with cancer,” Sophie says. Beth lent a parental hand with some of the details that Sophie couldn’t remember and Sophie drew all the pictures. She titled her book, “My Retinoblastoma Story.”
 
The Beckerman-Lee family decided to give Dr. Abramson a copy. He loved it and ordered several hundred copies for his office so that other children could learn from Sophie’s experience. It is still given out to this day.
 
Indeed, at Sophie’s 2014 checkup with Dr. Abramson, she and her parents noticed a family with a little boy new to the clinic; they were getting their bearings and, in Adam’s words, “absorbing the shock of their new reality.” Then a nurse handed the child a copy of “My Retinoblastoma Story.” Sophie approached the family, introduced herself as the author, spent time talking to the boy and his parents, reassured them that they were in the best possible hands — and, of course, autographed the book!
 

Sophie Pays It Forward

Sophie used the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah to raise both awareness of and funds for retinoblastoma. For the party following her Bat Mitzvah, Sophie, Beth, and Adam created centerpieces for each table consisting of toys that would be later be donated to Ronald McDonald House, the “home away from home” for families who need to travel to seek medical treatment for their seriously ill children.
 
In addition, at every place was a card urging guests to make donations to “buy an eye.” Sophie and her parents had learned from Dr. Abramson that not all families can afford a prosthetic eye for their child should an eye need to be removed due to cancer. Sophie combined the donations she received with a portion of her Bat Mitzvah money and donated the funds to help other families “buy an eye.”
 
And she didn’t stop there.
 
Today, Sophie manages to fit in work with families who have children undergoing cancer treatment with an active life as a sophomore drama student at Marymount College in Manhattan. “I volunteer with Candlelighters, an organization for families who have children fighting cancer,” she says. “I’ve always had an interest in getting involved helping families who have kids with cancer. Being someone who had cancer as a kid, I wish my family had been able to get more support outside our own family. I love how these families get to relate to each other, be with each other, and support each other in ways no one else can really understand.”
 
And as far as Dr. Abramson goes, Sophie exults: “There are no words to express how much I love him! He saved my life and I will forever be thankful for him.”