Driscoll cancer patients prove they have the 'right stuff'
August 14, 2013
Rhianna Brizuela's "survivor" necklace is a source of pride for the 4-year-old.
CORPUS CHRISTI - Cancer patients at Driscoll Children's Hospital can easily be described as warriors. They've adapted to battling a life-threatening disease with resilience and bravery, all the while buoying their families' morale.
On Sept. 7, Driscoll will honor the fighting spirit of its cancer patients and commemorate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with a warrior-themed celebration on the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay. About 150 patients throughout South Texas and their families have been invited. In keeping with the warrior theme, each patient will be given a souvenir dog tag. Corpus Christi City Councilwoman Lillian Riojas will read a proclamation declaring Sept. 7 Childhood Cancer Awareness Day, and the nearby Harbor Bridge will be illuminated in yellow specially for the occasion.
Here are profiles of three heroes who plan to attend the event:
4 years old
Behind Rhianna's pretty smile and shy, sweet demeanor is a tough little girl who battled cancer since she was just a baby. Her mother, Itzamara Pedraza, took her to a pediatrician when she was four months old because she had dime-size bumps on her stomach and under her armpits. It was discovered that Rhianna has neuroblastoma, and even more worrisome for her mother was that the disease was at stage four on a four-stage scale of severity.
"I was in shock," Pedraza said. "The first week I would just cry. Then I stopped because I had to be strong for my daughter."
Pedraza decided to take Rhianna to Driscoll Children's Hospital for the specialized treatment she needed. At Driscoll, she underwent numerous tests, scans and X-rays before regular chemotherapy treatments began. That's when Rhianna showed her true mettle.
"She was just a baby but she was never cranky or anything," Pedraza said. "I don't know where she got the strength from. She's a strong-headed little girl."
In June 2009, Rhianna's right adrenal gland was removed by a Driscoll surgeon to prevent her cancer from coming back, her mother said. She also had a mediport inserted in her chest - a reservoir through which physicians can administer chemotherapy medication into a blood vessel or draw a blood sample.
Pedraza said her daughter is on the "safer side" now, but that she has to come to Driscoll once a year for follow-up visits.
Spreading the message that cancer can affect anyone no matter their age is important to Pedraza.
"I'll do anything to help raise awareness that kids get cancer," she said.
7 years old
Chemotherapy didn't keep Sara Cavazos, 7, from smiling earlier this year.
It was "a life changing moment" when Sara was diagnosed last year with cancer in her kidney and abdominal lymph nodes, said her mother, Anna Cavazos. The good news was that, due to Sara's age and lack of a genetic predisposition, her kidney cancer was "very treatable," Cavazos said.
Physicians at Driscoll Children's Hospital quickly developed a treatment plan for Sara that first included the removal of a cancerous tumor from her kidney, which was performed just before Christmas. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed at Driscoll Children's Medical Plaza in McAllen.
As is common with patients undergoing cancer treatment, Sara lost her hair. And because of her lowered immunity, she had to be home-schooled. Nevertheless, she handled the challenges like a trooper, inspiring her own family.
"She's a fighter, a true hero," Cavazos said. "You would hardly ever see her down or depressed. Her famous quote was, 'I got this mom, I'll beat it.' I think it was harder on her parents than it was for her."
Cavazos said a high point in Sara's journey with cancer occurred last June when she attended Camp Star Trails, a summer camp in Burton designed for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. One of Sara's older sisters was able to attend with her.
"They had a blast," Cavazos said. "They got to meet other kids with illnesses, relate to them and realize they aren't the only ones dealing with this."
Sara's perseverance hasn't been in vain. Her hair recently started growing back, and in July, Driscoll physicians confirmed that she's cancer free, Cavazos said.
"She got the 'all clear' one week after her birthday. Now she's excited to go back to school and be with her friends again."
6 years old
Matthew Garza, 6, wears his navy flight suit on the deck of the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay.
Every other Thursday, Matthew can be found playing his favorite video games in between lab tests and chemotherapy treatments at Driscoll's Cancer & Blood Disorders Center. He's now in the maintenance phase of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease that took his parents by surprise when he was diagnosed by Driscoll physicians just over two years ago, at age 4.
"At first we were in total shock, almost denial," said Matthew's mother, Melinda Garza. "I think the denial ended when his sister asked me if her brother was going to die. That was like a wake-up call."
Although Matthew has about 15 more months of cancer treatments to go, he appears as healthy and playful as any 6-year-old boy. Last year, he participated in the Pilot for a Day program, in which Driscoll patients and their families are the guests of honor at local naval air stations. He treasures the custom-made flight suit given to him by pilots at Naval Air Station Kingsville, his mother said.
Matthew's fighting spirit has been a blessing to his family, especially during the challenging first two years of his treatment.
"He's been amazing," Garza said. "He's never complained at all. He's given us the strength to move forward."
Matthew's father, Gabriel Garza, recalled a recent trip he and his son took to the family's ranch outside Alice right after a chemotherapy session.
"He likes to ride our tractor and put out corn for the animals, so he went with me," he said. "He wasn't even fazed by the chemo. It was like nothing had happened."
What: Driscoll Children's Hospital's annual Childhood Cancer Awareness Month event
When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7
Where: USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, 2914 N. Shoreline Blvd.