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Cheerleader of the Week: Sonya


Four years ago, when she was a 20-year-old University of Houston student and Houston Rockets Power Dancer, it would've been easy to imagine Sonya as a Houston Texans Cheerleader.

Three-and-a-half years ago, it would've seemed next to impossible. It was around that time, in December of 2004, when Sonya noticed a strange small bump in her neck. A trip to the doctor revealed a swollen lymph node and, soon after, cancer – Hodgkin's lymphoma, Stage 2. By the time she had it surgically removed, the cancer had already spread from her neck to her chest.

At 21 years of age, she had to quit school and undergo five months of chemotherapy, followed by one month of radiation treatment. As a result, she lost her hair. Even more difficult for Sonya, she was sapped of her physical energy.

"For me, what I felt the hardest thing was, was the fact that I couldn't work out," she said. "I couldn't dance. I couldn't do any of the things that I used to be able to do physically.

"The best I could do was walk to my mailbox and back with my dog, which was only about less than a block away, and that was my only form of exercise and for someone who is as active as I was and am, it was really difficult."

After her treatment, Sonya began working with a trainer, doing light exercises to build up her endurance level. Within a year, a short-haired Sonya decided to try out for the Houston Texans Cheerleaders in May of 2006. Though she didn't make it past the third round of tryouts, Sonya was ecstatic with the fact that she had been able to dance consecutively for several hours.

"It wasn't that I wanted to try out to make the squad, which of course I would've loved if I made it, but it was more or less to see if I could do it," she said. "Almost a full year ahead (of my treatment), I had not even been able to walk around the mall because I would get so sore and so tired. For me, it was a huge sense of accomplishment."

Invigorated by her success in 2006, Sonya returned to tryouts in 2007. This time, she earned a spot on the squad and became a Houston Texans Cheerleader.

"It was so emotional for me when I made it because it was so much work to get myself back to at least close to the level I was before I was ever sick," she said.

Though Sonya overcame enormous obstacles to make the squad, she still faces a major challenge in the most taken-for-granted of tasks: breathing. Due to previous radiation treatment on her chest, Sonya's lung capacity will never be what it was prior to her Hodgkin's diagnosis, forcing her to constantly stay in the best shape possible to keep her breathing capabilities up to par.

She does so by maintaining a consistent running schedule and taking several exercise classes throughout the year, including her current grueling class at 24-hour Fitness.

"One of the reasons why I take the class is because it's a big challenge for me and it's something that is hard for me and I have to really push myself through it, I have to do these things in order to be able to perform," she said. "What my cancer experience has given to me is I'm very self-competitive.

"I'm not a competitive person one-on-one, but for myself, I'm very competitive. So whenever I'm having problems with the class, I just try to say, 'Come on, you can do it.' I try to motivate myself to do it, because I have to."

Overcoming such challenges allows Sonya to remain active, and not just physically. As a Texans Cheerleader, she relishes the opportunity to reach out to the community.

Her favorite experience this season came when she and other cheerleaders met a group of kids from the Texas Children's Hospital in a suite during a home game. One of the children was going through chemotherapy at the time.

"It was just nice to look at him and say, 'You know, I've gone through chemo, too, and look: I'm all better and I feel good, so one day you'll feel that way, too,'" she said. "Little things like really make me feel good about what I've gone through, that I can just touch one kid and maybe that doesn't make him feel as bad at that moment or maybe gives him a little bit of something to look forward to."

Sonya also helps cancer patients through her volunteer work with the non-profit organization CanCare, which matches cancer patients or their family members with survivors of cancer in a mentoring relationship.

She has begun to organize a young professionals group that aims to raise awareness within the Houston young adult community of cancer and CanCare. Sonya also does work with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, including their 'Light the Night' event every year.

"For me, being so young, it's really important to kind of raise awareness in the community that young people are affected by cancer as well," she said.

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