Having just learned in class about the symptoms of lung cancer, Julissa Gonzalez rushed home from school in a panic.
The symptoms described exactly how her mother had been feeling recently.
“They started with smoking, then they started talking about the lung cancer, and I just got the sensation in my body,” said Julissa, 12, who had been hearing her mother complain for weeks about pains in her back. “When I came home, I came running to mom telling her to go to the hospital.”
That June night, Julissa and her mother, Mayra Gonzalez, 56, drove to Memorial Regional Hospital, where doctors found a mass the size of a golf ball in Gonzalez’s right lung.
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It was stage 4, and it had already metastasized to her ribs and lymph nodes.
“When we came home, we laid in the bed and cried,” said Gonzalez, a single mother who lost her Broward College campus security guard job a year earlier. She received her last unemployment check a month before her diagnosis.
Before the cancer diagnosis, Gonzalez was preparing to apply for a federal contract job as security detail for courts and government offices, although her wish is to work with numbers.
“I only have 14 credits left to finish my bachelor’s,” said Gonzalez, who earned an associate’s degree in accounting during her six years working for the college. “I tried to get all the degrees I could, but then I couldn’t find a job in accounting. Now with this cancer, it has stopped me completely.”
Where money was once tight for the Gonzalez family, it is now almost non-existent.
Gonzalez receives an $830 Social Security disability check each month. And she receives support for Julissa from the child’s father, from whom she is divorced.
The family income covers rent on their two-bedroom Hollywood apartment and other urgent bills, like a car payment and insurance, electricity, and the Internet — a commodity Gonzalez has contemplated discontinuing but cannot bring herself to do.
She has tried to look for a cheaper place to live, but so far has been unsuccessful. Food often runs low, she says, and her disability check does not allow her to collect foodstamps.
The family also needs money for new clothes. Since she has been undergoing chemotherapy, Gonzalez said she only wears one pair of pants because they fit her best. Her Nissan Versa that she relies on to take Julissa to and from Olsen Middle School in Dania Beach needs four tires. The school bus does not stop near their home.
And Julissa, who always needs school supplies, would really like a laptop. She does her homework on a broken tablet.
Hispanic Unity of Florida, which provides social services to working families, nominated Gonzalez for this year’s Wish Book series.
Gonzalez found the organization after enrolling Julissa in her school’s aftercare program — a recommendation made by the school psychologist, who Julissa started seeing after her grades plummeted following her mother’s diagnosis.
“She is an A and B student, and her grades dropped to Cs and Ds. In the beginning of the semester, she had two Fs,” Gonzalez said. “The way I feel is the way she improves.”
Gonzalez’s Hispanic Unity case manager, Carolina Garcia, has been providing the family with assistance. She has helped to find an attorney to write Gonzalez’s will, pro bono.
“She’s in a hardship financially and emotionally, but she still has that passion to live,” said Garcia, who is now trying to bring Gonzalez’s sister from Cuba to care for Julissa, should anything happen to her mom.
Gonzalez, who has lost more than 30 pounds since her treatment, knows that not many survive stage 4 lung cancer, but she hopes to be one of the successful few. She had the last of her six chemotherapy treatments in November and started radiation in December to remove a small cyst in her right lung.
“It hasn’t been easy, but everything happens for a reason in life,” she said. “Perhaps this has been for me to realize that I need to get up, get more active and live.” It’s not because I don’t want to die. We are all going to die, on that I’m clear. But I just ask for another chance until Julissa is older.”