Trumbull teen beats cancer. Now she's helping others her age with disease.

TRUMBULL — Most teens might be frustrated about losing a year of their high school career to cancer surgery and chemotherapy. But most teens aren’t Sona Kocinsky.

“I don't feel like I lost a year of my life to cancer — it was a year of my life that I received an education, as if I have an appreciation for (the fight),” the 17-year-old Trumbull High senior said.

In her year-long battle against osteosarcoma — bone cancer — in her left shoulder, Sona received help from numerous places. But none meant more to her than the support of Trumbull High teacher and cross country coach Jim McCaffrey, who had lost his own daughter, Mia, to cancer at age 6. McCaffrey, now vice president of the group Infinite Love for Kids Fighting Cancer, showed up at her door shortly after her diagnosis, Sona said.

“I had seen him around school a little bit, and I knew he was the cross country coach, but I wasn’t on the team because I played soccer,” she said. “Infinite Love had reached out to me when I was diagnosed, and I’ll always remember the day he showed up with this enormous Apple computer box and rolling backpack.

With cancer treatments having reduced her immune system, Sona was actually attending school remotely months before COVID-19 forced the rest of her classmates to do the same. The backpack came in handy after surgery to remove her tumor, when her shoulder could no longer carry the weight of a standard backpack.

“My teachers have said they all feel like they should thank me because they all got a head start learning how to use Google Meet because of me,” she said.

Sona paid back Infinite Love’s generosity earlier this month at the group’s inaugural Spin 4 Kids fundraiser. Sona and her team raised more than $12,000 in the virtual Peloton bike-a-thon, according to Infinite Love President Andrea Gorsegner.

“It was amazing that she has been through so much at such a young age, yet she still chose her own way to pay it forward,” Gorsegner said.

Team Sona started with a goal of $1,000, which she and her family and friends quickly reached.

“So she increased her goal to $5,000, and then she said, ‘I think I’m going to reach it, why not go for $10,000?’” Gorsegner said.

The event raised a total of about $80,000 for Infinite Love, with Team Sona contributing $12,000 of the total.

“She is unstoppable,” Gorsegner said.

Sona, who was able to ride a half-hour during the fundraiser on her friend’s Peloton, though she said it was a bit strange because the first symptoms of her cancer surfaced while exercising in November 2019, when she was 16.

“I noticed that when I was playing soccer my shoulder hurt,” she said. “I brushed it off because I figured it was a pulled muscle. But it was getting to the end of the season, so I kept putting off getting it checked.”

But the pain in her shoulder wasn’t like the normal aches an athlete feels, she said.

“The weird thing was when I was running, the pain sort of throbbed in sync with my heart,” she said. “Then, after the season, I got an MRI and they saw the mass.”

A followup visit to Memorial Sloan Kettering confirmed the diagnosis the day before Thanksgiving, she said.

“I just remember the traffic coming home was horrific, and all I kept thinking was how crazy this is,” Sona said. “I was preparing to take the SAT and I was thinking, ‘I better take it now because I don’t know when I’ll get the chance.’”

Sona ended up taking the test early and is now headed in the fall to Tufts University, where she plans to major in biology.

“I’ve always loved bio,” she said. “I kind of look at the last year as a weird, different kind of bio education, where I learned all about blood counts and drug interactions.”

She also learned about surgical repair techniques, like having her cancerous shoulder bone replaced with one from a cadaver, a situation that she said was “interesting.”

Sona also learned about the effects of drug interactions, which caused her hair that once fell below her shoulders to slowly fall out during her treatments.

Other than enrolling at Tufts, Sona said she plans to enjoy life as a typical cancer-free teen. She is taking nothing for granted, though, and even basic sensations like a chilly winter breeze are exciting, she said.

“The other day, I suddenly realized my hair is long enough now that I can feel it blowing in the wind again,” she said.

deng@trumbulltimes.com