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John and Sofia Telford hail from different sides of the globe.
But now, they are each other’s entire world.
The now-married couple first met in the 1980s while both were computer science professors at Salem State University in Massachusetts. They taught alongside each other for many years, becoming the best of friends while they each raised families parallel to one another.
Then, later in life, John’s first wife of 39 years passed away, and Sofia got divorced from her first husband. The two married nearly 20 years ago when John was 60, and ultimately the professor duo retired to the academic hamlet of State College, Pa., where John received a PhD in 1973.
Considering John grew up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and Sofia hails all the way from Latvia in Eastern Europe (she emigrated to Massachusetts in 1979, when Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union), the couple finding each other at all makes for a storybook romance, almost like the universe meant for them to be together.
“We’re like two bugs in a rug,” John said during a recent chat at Nick’s House in Swarthmore, where the couple is staying while John is being treated for colon cancer. “If there’s something I need, she’s already got it, and vice versa. I’ve never been happier in my life as far as a wedding or marriage goes. We’re just the perfect mesh.”
“John is my family, the center of my life,” Sofia added. “I’m from another place and have one son far away in California. Reading online about this type of cancer, the forecast was not good. I got a little bit scared, of losing him and the suffering cancer brings.”
John was initially diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, had surgery and underwent chemotherapy, which knocked out all but three of the thumbnail-sized tumors that had metastasized in his belly. The cancer returned last June, and he recently came to Philadelphia to undergo specialized treatment known as proton beam therapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy that uses positively-charged particles to destroy cancer cells. The beam enters the skin like an X-ray, and precisely explodes through the tumors without affecting any of the nearby blood vessels. Doctors are encouraged with John’s progress, who has suffered entirely fewer side effects than he did with the chemo, and he is scheduled to be treated through June 11.
John receives the proton therapy five days a week, and then he and Sofia head home to State College for the weekend. The retired couple were set to stay in a hotel for about $200 per night, but then a social worker at Penn referred them to Nick’s House in Swarthmore right outside of Philadelphia.
“A hotel at that price is not an easy thing to do on a retired college professor’s salary,” said John, who turns 79 in June. “We’ve been extremely comfortable here. We were surprised; we thought we would be thrown into some kind of dormitory situation, but it’s far different than we ever imagined. We’re amazed to have found this place. There’s just a tremendous feeling of gratitude from us both.”
Added Sofia: “It’s so beautiful here. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and we are very grateful. Everyone is so accommodating, warm and helpful. The house is luxurious and elegant, and the area around it is very pretty for walking around. And the people who live here support each other. All of us have fears for our loved ones, so we have something in common we can talk about.”
Having comfortable accommodations while John undergoes treatment has eased a burden for both he and Sofia. When talking with John — already a jovial, gregarious person by nature — one wouldn’t even be able to detect he was ill unless he said something about it himself. His attitude has remained steadfastly positive.
“He is a very optimistic person, always jovial … that’s just him,” Sofia said. “His aura is good, just being next to him helps me. I’ve looked up to him for many years, and he supports me in so many ways.”
“It’s mutual,” John added, his hand interlocked with Sofia’s at the dining room table inside Nick’s House.
Considering the circumstances of their situation, the couple looked calm and at ease. Before the couple arrived at Nick’s House, Sofia said she cried at home every night, something she tried to do quietly as to not upset or worry John (though not surprisingly, John said he heard).
“Here,” she said. “I have stopped crying.”
The HEADstrong Foundation™ is a 501(c)3 committed to improving lives affected by cancer, founded by the late Nicholas “HEAD” Colleluori. The non-profit organization plays a vital role as a direct resource to families overcome by the hardships of cancer. HEADstrong provides a variety of services, which range from financial assistance to funding capital projects to peer mentorship and, most notably, HEADstrong operates Nick’s House™, a guest family home providing more than 2,555 nights of complimentary lodging and support to families displaced in the pursuit of life-saving cancer treatment. Today, Nick’s vision is being fulfilled through the relentless efforts of his family, athletes and supporters across the country uniting in the fight against cancer. For more information on the HEADstrong Foundation and how to donate, host a fundraiser or volunteer, please visit www.HEADstrong.org.