East Marshall student battles brain cancer
GILMAN — Twelve-year-old Sophia Juarez leaves an impact on everyone she meets, and her fifth-grade science and math teacher at East Marshall Middle School, Karen Roseland, describes her as the type of person she “wanted to get to know better right away.” Juarez and her family received the news last October that she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a terminal form of brain cancer that affects children between the ages of two and 11.
In October, Juarez was only 11 years old, and her grandmother and grandfather, Tracy and Gary Catron, had noticed she had started slurring her words, falling and bruising easily. Her eyes had a glossy quality. All these symptoms raised concerns for both her grandparents and her parents, Megan and Moses Juarez, who live just two blocks away from the Catron household and share care of the children with grandparents Tracy and Gary.
Tracy said they thought Juarez may have had Bell’s palsy at first, but when they took Juarez to UnityPoint Health in Marshalltown, it was determined to be DIPG. From there, she was rushed to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where more tests could be conducted.
The inoperable tumor is located on Juarez’s brain stem, and the affected area controls vision, nerves, arms and legs, among other areas of the body. Tracy Catron said she was given between four and eight months left to live, as there is currently no cure for DIPG, which affects between 200 and 300 children per year.
“They do research, but they just can’t figure out what this is. So there hasn’t been any strides in this for 60 years. It’s just an awful, awful cancer,” Tracy said. “The problem is that only four percent of funding for cancer goes to (researching) childhood cancers, and we found that out. It’s just sad.”
Radiation shrunk the tumor. From November to March, Juarez went on a trial medication to try and combat the cancer, but her symptoms began coming back. Soon, the cancer spread and affected her left eye to the point where she could no longer move it left or right. The tumor had ultimately grown to the point where there were no other treatment options.
“Five weeks ago, they told us we had two to three weeks, so we’re actually five weeks into a two to three week — you know, where they said take her home, make her comfortable, make her memories,” Tracy Catron said.
With Juarez home, her grandparents, parents and siblings got to work making memories with her. She and her family went to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and a parade of emergency vehicles from throughout the area drove by her house in Gilman on May 13. Officer Vern Jefferson with the Marshalltown Police Department organized the event.
Jefferson didn’t know Juarez personally, but the woman who babysits his children, Callie Beech, did know her through her daughter. Through Beech, Jefferson learned about Juarez and her situation and wanted to do something special for her.
“I told Callie, I said, ‘You know what would be really cool is if I could get some emergency vehicles together to do a parade,’ and she said ‘Yeah, that would be nice,'” Jefferson said. “I thought it turned out really nice.”
The parade was well attended, as all of the students at East Marshall Middle School walked the two blocks to Juarez’s house to show their support for her.
In addition to the parade and other activities, she got a visit from some Shetland ponies just a few days ago.
“We’re doing memories here at the house, and all of her friends have come and seen her, and her teacher, Mrs. Roseland, comes at least twice a week probably to see her,” Tracy Catron said. “She’s doing really good, she’s a real strong — she’s a warrior, let me tell you. She has defied all the odds since the beginning of this.”
Mrs. Roseland taught Juarez’s three older siblings, Keyshawn, 19, Emily, 16, and Alex, 14, and she met Sophia at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. Roseland said her favorite part about having her in the classroom was getting to see her caring attitude towards others.
Even with Juarez coming in and out of her classroom, Roseland wanted to stay in contact with her both because she knew her family and because she wanted to know Sophia better.
“She’s the type of person that you want to know, that you want to get to know. She’s got a fighting spirit. She’s got a way about her that’s contagious and you want to spend time with her. She’s got a fantastic sense of humor, so yeah, she’s just somebody that you meet and you think ‘I want to know her better,'” Roseland said.
Roseland learned to take it one day at a time from Juarez, and her fighting spirit really struck a chord.
“I think, as teachers, every year there’s a kid or two who really stand out,” Roseland said. “Definitely, this last year, Sophia will be one that really stands out for me as far as being a positive light, being a caring person and even going through the hardships that she is, she’s still got a smile on her face.”
Tracy Catron said the community has been wonderful throughout the family’s difficult time, and she was grateful for all the support and assistance they have received.
“This community, even Marshalltown, is just wonderful to us. I mean, we’ve had meals. We’ve had donations. We’ve had just everything. You hope that your community will do this if you have something, but this community and Gilman and Laurel and Marshalltown have just been wonderful,” Tracy Catron said.
The one thing keeping Juarez’s family going is the fact that she has not been in pain, and they are hoping it remains that way. Angie Willson with Grinnell Hospice is providing in-home care, and right now, Juarez is resting as much as she can at her grandparents’ home.
Her two siblings, Emily and Alex, are still in school, but East Marshall High School is allowing them to finish their year at home so they can spend as much time as they can with Sophia.
Contact Susanna Meyer at 641-753-6611 or