DUSON Professor and Cancer Survivor Uses Her Story to Help Others

DUSON Professor and Cancer Survivor Uses Her Story to Help Others

Sophia Smith, Ph.D., MSW, is an associate professor with tenure at the Duke University School of Nursing. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma as a teen and breast cancer as a young adult, she has been determined to help other cancer survivors who struggle to afford treatments. 


Smith was a teenager when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. She endured two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which took a toll on her health and put a financial strain on her parents, who were unemployed at the time. When Smith’s doctor heard about their struggles, he waived his fees. In addition, her parents had to borrow money from family members to pay for the treatments. 

That has stuck with Smith and now influences her work as an Associate Professor with tenure at the Duke University School of Nursing (DUSON). 

“While that was really touching, it was also embarrassing to me as a teenager, and I haven't forgotten that fact,” said Smith. “So it was really important to be able to provide solutions for people who couldn't afford therapy.” 

Smith’s journey to DUSON has been a long road. She planned to be a nurse but decided to study business in college because she didn’t want to be around hospitals after her cancer treatments. For 13 years, she worked at IBM as a computer programmer and manager and eventually transferred from New York to North Carolina. 

About a year after having twins, she was diagnosed with breast cancer as a late effect from the chest radiation treatment she got for Hodgkin lymphoma.  

“It was a scary time. My husband and I decided I wasn't going back to IBM given the excessive travel and stress involved. I just wanted to live for my kids,” she said.  

Smith eventually returned to school to get a degree in social work and fell in love with research. That led her to Duke, where she was mentored by Professor Amy Abernethy at the Duke Cancer Institute and was eventually hired as an Associate Professor in 2014.  

For the past decade, she has been working with the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, California. Together, they launched Cancer Distress Coach, a mobile app that offers stress relief tips and support networks while collecting data to further inform treatment of cancer patients. 

“It's all about providing care to those who can't afford it,” Smith said. “That's what really drives my work.” 

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