Oct 1, 2022

Judy Sonner's journey of laughter, grit and survival


ost days, before the sun has even risen, you can find 74-year-old Judy Sonner hunting deals at garage sales and thrift shops with her gym bag and 64-ounce big gulp of diet soda in tow. For the retired Pensacola local, much of her retirement has been spent spoiling her grandchildren, gardening, keeping fit at Pilates, yoga, Zumba, cardio drumming and karate classes and attending her husband’s weekly Parkinson’s support group.

As a fashion-turned-fitness enthusiast, Sonner traded in her overflowing wardrobe for athleisurewear and a passion for health. When her granddaughter gave birth to her first child in early 2020, Judy purchased a second home in Pensacola and prepared to split her time between The Villages and Pensacola to be closer to her family. That is, until her doctor found a spot.

“It was just a routine mammogram and my doctor called to tell me they found a spot,” Sonner explained. “It was unexpected, because there was no family history. I don’t think my mother ever had a mammogram done at all during her lifetime. I was surprised, but I was never scared. I just knew it had to be done, and I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.”

Sonner was diagnosed with estrogen receptorpositive breast cancer in early 2020 and immediately began treatments while most of the world was cooped up in quarantine. After the diagnosis, she went in for a lumpectomy surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, then had a chemo port installed and began her first chemotherapy treatments. Because one of the biopsies revealed cancer in her lymph nodes, she followed the chemotherapy with 35 sessions of radiation treatment.

The risk of breast cancer increases with age, and the median age for women at time of diagnosis is 62, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the elderly population has lower survival rates compared to younger women, which makes survivor stories like Sonner’s seldom heard.

“It was hard, because I was also taking care of my husband who has Parkinson’s disease,” Sonner said. “With the chemo, I didn’t feel like eating or cooking because I was tired, and nothing tastes good. Everything tasted like metal, even my beloved diet pop. And everything was shut down from COVTD, so I couldn’t go out to my exercise classes or see my friends. My only outing was going to the grocery store.”

To keep her spirits raised and her belly full, Sonner’s family sent daily GrubHub orders to her front door - soft pretzels and smoothies, burritos, hamburgers and even the occasional bottle of Tequila and margarita mix. Her granddaughter called her every day to make sure she ate something, and her daughter made trips back and forth to The Villages, where Sonner received treatments when she wasn’t recuperating at her home in Pensacola. By the end of her chemo treatments, she shaved her head and found herself in a race with her newborn great-granddaughter on who would grow their hair first.

“I was glad I had been exercising so much, and I think that helped a lot because I was in better shape before the treatments began,” Sonner said. “I think it’s important to stay positive and remember that breast cancer isn’t a life sentence. It sucks, but you can get through it. I never once felt like a victim, I always felt like a survivor. Having the support of my friends and family made a world of difference.”

Although the pandemic and cancer treatments threw a wrench in her usual routine, Sonner kept herself preoccupied by going to garage sales with her friends and even began walking four to five miles a day with friends from her exercise classes to make up for the gyms remaining shut down. Her positive attitude kept her active through her breast cancer journey and even got her into some mischief.

“My daughter came down to visit and she has her medical marijuana card,” Sonner explained. “Apparently it helps some cancer patients with their appetite and aches and pains, and my doctor said it was an option if I was interested, so she wanted to see how it worked on me. I’ve never done anything like that before. She gave me a drop of a tincture on a cracker, and it tasted horrible. The next thing I knew, I was feeling weird and then I blacked out. My daughter said I was singing, and she thought I was having a stroke. They took me to the ER and one of the nurses giving me fluids said, ‘you’re fine, you’re just really high - like we’d all like to be.’ We laughed and laughed about that night for months. I can’t believe I went to the ER in my 70s over marijuana!”

Sonner officially finished her treatments in April 2021 and celebrated the end of the journey with a pink ribbon breast cancer tattoo. More than anything, she emphasized the importance of scheduling routine mammograms.

“I would tell any woman reading this to schedule a mammogram,” she said. “It’s not always something that you can detect yourself even if you do a self-exam. So, a mammogram is the most important thing you can do. And, for those that receive a diagnosis, stay positive and don’t think of yourself as a victim. Your mindset is the most important thing you can control when your life feels out of control.”

“A mammogram is the most important thing you can do. And, for those that receive a diagnosis, stay positive and don’t think of yourself as a victim. Your mindset is the most important thing you can control when your life feels out of control"