University of Miami student Sophia Nealon illustrated the book "Bye, Bye, Bad Blood."

Sophomore saves sister’s life with stem cell donation

By Ashley A. Williams

Sophomore saves sister’s life with stem cell donation

By Ashley A. Williams
After a live-saving transplant to overcome leukemia, Sophia Nealon teamed up with her sister to create “Bye, Bye, Bad Blood,” a creative children’s tale that aims to teach young cancer patients about their diagnosis and prepare them and their families for what is to come.

For Sophia Nealon, saving her sister’s life was by far the easiest decision she has ever made. 

“It took a simple swab from me and our entire family to see who had the highest DNA match percentage,” said the Osprey, Florida, resident who studies chemistry at the University of Miami. “l was a 100 percent match to be my sister’s bone marrow transplant donor.” 

When the family traveled to New York City for a younger sister’s birthday, it became obvious to them that something was wrong because Kassandra Nealon got sick again. Once back home in Florida, she went to see a doctor and the family got the devastating news. Kassandra Nealon, Sophia’s older sister and recipient of the life-saving stem cell transplant, was diagnosed with Acute T-Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia at 23 years old, after becoming repeatedly ill with flu-type symptoms in late 2019.

“They told her that she had two liters of fluid on her lungs, which was making regular tasks exhausting,” said Nealon. “Her doctors originally thought it was lymphoma but after testing her blood count, they shared with us that it was actually a type of leukemia. It was a big shock to everyone.” 

Following the diagnosis, the day-to-day routine of the Nealon family underwent a drastic change, as Kassandra Nealon’s appointments were located miles away in Tampa. Then the world entered a global pandemic. During this time, Nealon enrolled in her first semester as a University of Miami student, opting to complete the semester remotely. 

“My mom was the only one allowed at my sister’s appointments, so it took a lot of coordination, but we figured out a system that worked for us—like staying in Airbnbs for some weekends and utilizing FaceTime to be with her during her chemo and radiation appointments,” she said. 

The type of cancer Nealon’s sister had is commonly diagnosed in young children and is rare in adults. After so many visits to various doctors’ offices, Kassandra Nealon noticed that there weren’t many books explaining the specific cancer that is faced mostly by adolescents.

Motivated by her friends and family, Kassandra Nealon felt compelled to create “Bye, Bye, Bad Blood,” a children’s book that lightheartedly explains the cancer to children and their families. Kassandra Nealon looked to none other than her sister, who draws as a hobby, to illustrate the book.

“We decided to sell and market the book through Amazon because it would allow us to make the most profit,” said Nealon, who had no prior knowledge about self-publishing a book.

That profit margin was important to Nealon and her sister because 100 percent of it goes directly to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the largest voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting blood cancer in the world. 

“You don’t know who you’re helping out and how much you can change someone’s life with your donation,” said Nealon, who also encourages the campus community to sign up with BeTheMatch.com to become a stem cell transplant donor. “Becoming a donor is super easy and takes seconds of your time.”

Nealon’s sister is now in remission. While promoting her book, she is determined to finish her medical school applications—a process that was abruptly stopped as she battled cancer.

Those interested in donating a book to a children’s cancer treatment center or purchasing the book can visit byebyebadblood.com.

To learn more about stem cell transplants at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, visit https://umiamihealth.org/en/sylvester-comprehensive-cancer-center/treatments-and-services/hematologic-(blood)-cancers-/bone-marrow-and-stem-cell-transplant