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College of Social Work

  • Harleigh Sohler

How Childhood Cancer Influenced a Path to Social Work

Sept. 20, 2019
Chris Woodley • 

September is recognized as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, more than 300,000 children up to age 19 worldwide are diagnosed annually with cancer. In addition, one in 285 children in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. One Master of Social Work Advanced Standing student and her family experienced the trials of childhood cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. But this experience influenced her decision to study and pursue a career in social work.

Harleigh Sohler was a 15-year old high school freshman in McDonough, Georgia when her life changed forever following a routine eye appointment in May 2011. After an optometrist determined her optic nerves were abnormal, she was sent to a specialist for further testing. When the results of a peripheral vision test came back black with no correct responses, her specialist (an ophthalmologist) recommended an MRI of her brain. A day later, her mom was informed that the MRI revealed a tumor.

“My mom kept the news from me for a few days because I used to rodeo and there was a big event that weekend,” Sohler says. “When I came home Sunday night, she called me and my sister into the living room and told us that they found a tumor, and we would be meeting with a neurosurgeon in the morning. I didn't know how to process what I was being told.” 

Sohler, her mom and grandfather met with a neurosurgeon at the beginning of May and was diagnosed with an optical pathway glioma, a slow-growing brain tumor around the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. They were referred to an oncologist and met with her later that month as Sohler and her family prepared for the long treatment process.

Looking back, I realize that I had to go through the different emotions during my treatment because it changed me and turned me into who I am today.

- Harleigh Sohler

At the beginning of June at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite, Sohler went into surgery to have a porta-a-cath inserted for her 16-months of chemotherapy, which started a week later. She lost her hair during the treatment but that was only one of her difficulties during this period.

“I was bullied, and people were saying I was only doing this for attention and wasn't really sick,” Sohler says. “Going to school and knowing that no one cared was emotionally horrible. I also went to Camp Sunshine, a camp for kids with cancer, and lost a lot of friends as a result of childhood cancer. I tried to stay positive and believe that I could beat this, but when I saw others not beat cancer it made me think, 'What makes me special?'”

Sohler did not always have the hope and motivation that she would beat cancer. She would have high points and say, ‘I got this, and I’m excited because it’s almost done’ when she was around others. But there were other times by herself when she would cry and ask her mom, ‘What if I die from chemo,’ or ‘What if I’m going through this for no reason?’ 

“I vividly remember one day when I broke down in my doctor's office by curling up on the bed sobbing while she walked in,” Sohler says. “She asked what was wrong, and I told her to just do the surgery, and that I was done with cancer and chemo. My doctor said she was going to step out and wanted the old Harleigh back when she returned. That was my mini therapy before chemo that day.”

Sohler completed her chemotherapy treatments and her hair was growing back at the start of her junior year of high school. Today, she is an adult patient at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta, where she has annual brain scans. October 1 will mark seven years cancer free.

“Looking back, I realize that I had to go through the different emotions during my treatment because it changed me and turned me into who I am today,” Sohler says.

Camp Sunshine, where Sohler attended during her chemotherapy treatments, was located at a large campground called Camp Twin Lakes. After beginning her undergraduate studies at Augusta University in Georgia, she worked for a summer at Camp Twin Lakes, which featured 12 weeks of camps for children with different disabilities. This was where the building blocks of a future in social work began.

“I realized there were camps for all disabilities and something new was coming at me every day,” Sohler says. “That was when I realized I wanted to do something to get behind this, even though I didn't know who was advocating for this population. I was considering majoring in psychology because I always loved the mental health aspect of individuals, but someone suggested I look at social work. I took an intro to social work class and realized this is what I eat, sleep and breathe. You can do so much as a social worker by advocating for any population.”

Sohler graduated with her Bachelor of Social Work degree earlier this year. She moved to Columbia and began studying for her Master of Social Work this past June through the College of Social Work’s 11-month Advanced Standing program. Sohler is also currently completing her field education requirement at Camp Aspen, a residential treatment facility in Columbia for adolescents between the ages of 12-19 in the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice for substance use. After graduating, she would like to pursue a career in either substance use or mental health.

“It’s great to know that I am in someone's life and have this ability to make a difference and impact them in a positive way by making a lasting impression that could potentially change their life,” Sohler says. “Knowing that I can influence people to better themselves or their future self is very exciting.”  

While Sohler continues to support childhood cancer patients and help spread awareness, her advocacy efforts have expanded to children with other health conditions. She volunteers at a camp for children with Type 1 Diabetes and volunteered at Ronald McDonald House Charities with her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. Sohler was also one of the executive members who helped start Jaguar Miracle, a dance marathon at Augusta University.

“I wanted to spread awareness that the event was to support more than just kids with childhood cancer or Type 1 Diabetes but rather kids in need with any health condition. It became an event to support our children’s hospital (in Augusta),” Sohler says.   

As Sohler’s seven-year anniversary of being cancer-free approaches, she understands first-hand how difficult childhood cancer can be for a family. For her, having a support group even now has been very beneficial.

“I was an open book with everyone about my cancer so I could answer questions and talk with others,” Sohler says. “My mom was involved in seeking parent support groups for children with cancer and now she has a network of people who she can contact. Around the time I have my yearly scans, I also have people that I can reach out to, and they know what I’m going through. Finding resources and groups within the childhood cancer community who genuinely understand you is life-changing.”

Visit CURE Childhood Cancer for more information on research, family support, volunteer opportunities and more.

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