Sara Sorbo ’10, Adams, N.D., hadn’t planned on starting the fall on the sidelines. Practice after practice, she watched her teammates on the basketball court play without her, a constant reminder that she wasn’t ready yet.
But she hadn’t planned on fighting a rare form of cancer either.
Sorbo, team captain for the Cobber women, came back to campus in August not knowing if she’d ever regain full motion or feeling in her left arm – her shooting arm. Instead of spending her summer in offseason training for basketball, she’d undergone five weeks of radiation and two surgeries to destroy the synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer.
Even when she was most frightened, Sorbo set her sights on finishing her senior year and playing with her teammates.
At a weekend basketball tournament in early December, she made it happen. Her teammates and family in the crowd saw more than a glimpse of her old self on the court.
“There was one play with a spin move when I thought, ‘You’re back!’” says teammate Erica Nord ’11, Wolverton, Minn. “She’s here. She’s back.”
A four-year starter, Sorbo is a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. The 5-foot-8 guard brings to the team muscle, speed, hustle and heart, playing at 100 percent every single second. Last season, she finished third on the team in scoring with a 9.3 points per game average, led the team in steals and was named to the MIAC All-Conference honorable mention team. Across the MIAC, coaches are ready to see her graduate. “Hasn’t she been in college at least eight years now?” they joke.
Yet, off court – and even with her teammates – there’s a softer, more playful side of Sorbo. Her quick wit, beaming smile and jokester tendencies often place her at the center of attention. She can quickly change the atmosphere in a room, bringing complete strangers together with an original song on her ukulele, a ride on her unicycle or a story about her latest prank on a friend. And she’s not above spending 40 minutes hiding under her coach’s desk or sliding inside a sweatshirt – still on the hanger – in her best friend’s closet for a good scare.
As friend Maggie Olson ’10, Fargo, N.D., says, “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like Sara Sorbo. You either don’t know her or you love her.”
So when Sorbo was diagnosed with cancer in May, it sent many in the Concordia community reeling.
“For everyone, it was shock,” says head women’s basketball coach Jessica Rahman ’88. “And then we started thinking, ‘How are we going to help her fight this?’ At age 22 she’s facing something most people don’t face until they’re a lot older. But we knew she’s a fighter and she was going to stand up and fight that challenge.”
Sorbo first noticed a small bump on her left forearm two years ago. A doctor visit concluded it was likely scar tissue or a cyst from a hit in basketball. Considering she frequently leaves games with bruises covering her legs from ball dives and rough play, it seemed a likely cause.
When the bump became very painful to the touch a year later, Sorbo had it removed. The surgery went without complications and the tissue was sent to pathology for routine testing. She was relieved to be without the tender bump and excited about the summer ahead – preparing for her last year of basketball and spending time with friends.
But on May 11, she received a phone call.
The doctor explained the tissue tested positive for synovial sarcoma and there was a 50 percent chance it had already spread to her lungs. He recommended immediate treatment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“The doctor said not to Google it because there are lots of extreme versions,” Sorbo says. “I remember thinking, ‘But is it just sitting in my lungs? Could I die from it?’”
As Sorbo began to call her closest friends and family to deliver the news, they heard the serious tone in her voice and were stunned.
“I didn’t believe it,” says teammate Lindsey Schultz ’11, Hitterdal, Minn. “She just seems untouchable.”
Family and friends rallied around Sorbo with hugs, phone calls and text messages as she prepared for surgery and radiation. At the end of May, Sorbo underwent numerous tests at Mayo.
Thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread.
During the summer, Sorbo underwent five weeks of radiation treatment. She chose to travel alone to Rochester most weeks, but the loneliness was eased by care packages, phone calls and visits with friends in the area. Even during weeks of treatments, she rollerbladed, shot a few hoops and sang at two weddings, including her sister’s.
“While it was happening, it was amazing how many people showed support,” Sorbo says. “I’m very grateful because I needed it. It showed me that the people I care about really care about me in return.”
Family and friends say despite their efforts to be there for Sorbo, she was the one who remained strong for them.
“Sara was so upbeat about all of it,” says Sorbo’s mother, Judy. “She would come home on the weekends and everything would be great. But then she would leave and we’d start to worry again.”
“Even if she’s hurt and scared on the inside, it doesn’t hold her back,” says friend Dana Wermers ’10, Rapid City, S.D. “I feel like she’s superwoman and invincible, but I know she’s not. I’ve seen another side of her. She’s one of the strongest people I know.”
Following radiation, doctors prepared Sorbo for her second surgery. They told her to expect reduced range of motion in her arm, as well as numbness in her forearm and hand. Stubborn as ever, Sorbo didn’t let herself think much about the news.
“I kept looking ahead,” she says. “I wanted to heal, get back to school and get back to basketball. I kept saying to myself that I would be playing.”
During the August surgery, doctors cut away all tissue previously surrounding the bump, removing a 3-inch diameter circle of skin, fat, vessels and muscle deep into her arm. Though still serious, the surgery went far better than expected. The same rang true for many aspects of her cancer, including it staying localized, a faster radiation recovery time and the tumor being just small enough not to require chemotherapy.
“Anything that could have happened, I had the lesser version,” Sorbo says. “Those doctors have seen everything, and it’s cancer. So when they see something good from it, it was always encouraging.”
When she returned to campus a few weeks later – in true Sorbo style – she didn’t hesitate to pull off the bandage and show off the exposed muscle to those curious enough to look. She threw herself into school and activities as the newly crowned Homecoming Queen, an Orientation club leader, an emcee of Cabaret and basketball star.
Other than returning to Mayo for checkups, she is putting cancer behind her.
At a recent game, Sorbo slid a gold wristband over her scar and ran onto the court yelling and clapping her hands. She patted backs, bumped shoulders playfully and called out to her teammates after a successful play. The energy on the floor soared and her coaches looked on approvingly.
She’s definitely back.
Story: Amanda J. Peterson / Photos: Sheldon Green/Submitted