'People tell me to kill my child . . ." This mom is on a fierce mission to battle hate.

Update: Sophia passed away in May of 2019 surrounded by her loved ones. Natalie Weaver continues to use her voice to advocate for people with disabilities.

Natalie Weaver's holiday photo should have been received with joy like any other family's. Instead, a vile commenter attacked her and her daughter Sophia.

The photo shows Weaver's husband Mark sitting in front of the tree with their 10-year-old daughter, Sophia. As Sophia gazes at the tree in wonder, her smiling dad helps her hang an ornament. It's a sweet photo of a father and his obviously unique daughter sharing a warm holiday moment.

But one woman saw something else—an opportunity to spew hatred and prejudice toward a child with profound needs.


Weaver received a vile message in response to her photo. But rather than ignore it, she published the comment so that people could see what kind of stigma and unkindness people with disabilities can face.

Unfortunately, such comments are not all that uncommon for Sophia's family.

Sophia's deformities and disabilities make her one of a kind, but they aren't what define her.

Sophia was born with facial, hand, and foot deformities. Weaver says she's the only person in the world with her features, and also the only person in the world with her combination of conditions.

"Each year has brought a new diagnosis for Sophia," says Weaver. Her health challenges include an extremely rare immune deficiency, Type 1 diabetes, and Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes seizures, breathing disorders, tremors, and many other issues, and has left Sophia unable to walk, talk, and use her hands. She needs around the clock care.

But Sophia is so much more than a child with profound needs. She's a daughter, a sister to two younger siblings, and in some ways, a typical sassy 10-year-old.

"Though she goes through a lot," says Weaver, "she is the strongest person I know. She handles it all with a smile and laughs a lot. She has an attitude, rolls her eyes at me and is silly! When her body calms, and the neurological storms pass (this can last a minute, days and weeks) sometimes she surprises us with a word like 'annoying' (she was calling me that!)."

Weaver says that Sophia has brought a lot to their family:

"Though we experience heartache and struggles, Sophia has changed our lives for the better. She makes our live richer, fuller and filled with love. She's taught us to live in the moment and to appreciate the small things. She is my child, and I love her just the same as any other parent loves their child. It seems some people don't understand that. Society has defined beauty, and value but because of Sophia I now have my own definition, and I know what true beauty and value are. Sophia is beautiful, and valuable, and is filled with so much happiness and love. She deserves respect and dignity just like everyone else."

"People often tell me to kill my child, to put her out of her misery . . ."

Weaver decided years ago that she wasn't going to hide her daughter away from the world. She became an advocate for people with disabilities and deformities and shares her family's life with Sophia openly on social media.

Unfortunately, living openly with differences sometimes means receiving horrible, vile comments from the dregs of humanity.

"I've received a lot of comments since I decided to share a glimpse into our lives and Sophia's story to change the stigma surrounding profoundly disabled kids and in Sophia's case also facial deformities. You don't hear or see families like mine often. People often tell me to kill my child, to put her out of her misery, and that she looks horrible, scary and that she is worthless. I receive many different forms of hate speech, discrimination and even death threats against my daughter and me. Someone used her image to promote abortion. In real life, people have screamed at the top of their lungs and laughed, called her a monster, point her out, stare, whisper or pretend she doesn't exist."

Weaver says that people think there's "a magical plug to pull," but there's not. "Sophia is alive because she is strong and her body is strong," says Weaver. "We've never taken any unnecessary measures to keep her alive. We will lose her one day, but while she is here, we will take every step possible to decrease her pain and make her quality of life the best it can be, which is the only reason she's had 28 surgeries."

The idea that anyone would tell a parent their child should die is unfathomable. To imply that they should kill their own child themselves is the height of human cruelty.

We can all help fight the stigma and support people like Sophia and her family.

To learn more about battling the stigma, Weaver suggests checking out https://faceequalityinternational.org, an organization founded by a man with a facial disfigurement and which seeks to create "a world where everyone is treated fairly whatever their face looks like."

Weaver also founded Sophia's Voice, a non-profit organization in Sophia's honor, to help others by providing medical assistance and equipment to people with disabilities, and she has dedicated her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts to sharing a glimpse into her family's life to change the stigma surrounding kids with facial deformities and profound disabilities.

"I was a very private person for the first 7.5 yrs of Sophia's life because of people like the lady who made this public comment," says Weaver. "Once I decided to no longer hide, I have made it my mission to fight for the dignity and respect that profoundly disabled people and people with facial deformities deserve."

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."