Young cancer survivors find inspiration in recovering orangutan at Jungle Island

A Jungle Island orangutan who beat non-Hodgkin lymphoma a year ago showed off her painting skills to a group of blood-cancer survivors.

04/06/2014 6:16 PM

04/06/2014 7:13 PM

When Victoria Gonzalez met Peanut for the first time on Sunday, the shy 13-year-old had no idea that they would have so much in common.

The two bonded by painting, with Victoria giving Peanut an assist by holding up the canvas. They shared an appreciation for friends and family.

And they are both cancer survivors.

“She went through the same thing I went through,” said Victoria, who at age 6 was diagnosed with leukemia and went into remission about two years later.

One thing Victoria and Peanut don’t have in common: their species. Peanut is an orangutan, one of the stars at the Watson Island attraction Jungle Island.

“I didn’t even know she could get cancer,” said Victoria, who visited Jungle Island on Sunday with her father, Oscar, for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s survivor weekend. “We are both survivors.”

The weekend raised awareness and gave human survivors a chance to have some fun. It was also a way to raise money for the organization, which offers support and programs for survivors and their families.

Meeting Peanut and her caretaker Linda Jacobs was a special treat, said Rhonda Siegel, senior campaign manager for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“They all went through a huge ordeal in their life,” said Siegel, who handed out information to Jungle Island visitors about a children’s program, Pennies for Patients, to raise money. “Man and animal experience the same things sometimes.”

Peanut, 10, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012 after her caretaker noticed changes in her behavior.

The normally active and feisty great ape, who spent her days painting and playing with her fraternal twin, Pumpkin, and the park’s other four orangutans, suddenly became tired all the time.

Before long, tissue samples and an ultrasound revealed that Peanut had an intestinal blockage. After the operation, a sample of Peanut’s tissue was sent to a California lab. The results showed Peanut had cancer of the blood.

With the help of doctors from the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center/University of Miami and UM's Miller School of Medicine, Peanut was treated with a chemo-immunotherapy regimen typically used to treat human lymphoma cases. Peanut became the first great ape in the world to have this type of treatment, Jacobs said.

Jacobs said while Peanut was undergoing treatment, she experienced side effects that humans often get: nausea, fever, fatigue. She had to be isolated, but Jacobs and other caregivers “spoiled” her.

“She got whatever she wanted,” Jacobs said.

After three months of treatment, Peanut showed signs of improvement. Jacobs said she still monitors her behavior and hopes that she doesn’t relapse.

For Rosaana Barrera, 28, Peanut’s story sounded familiar. In May 2012, the then-26-year-old started feeling tired all the time, didn’t have an appetite and was itchy all over.

After several doctors appointments, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She underwent surgery and months of chemotherapy.

She said the cancer is dormant now, but she always lives in fear that it will return.

“It’s not easy,” she said. But seeing Peanut made her smile. “This is a really nice thing to see.”

On Sunday, Peanut easily grabbed the attention of the crowd as she showed her teeth on command and nibbled on the grapes Jacobs used as a bribe. Through a chain-link fence, Peanut used a long wooden stick to swirl bright pink paint around a lime green canvas. The grapes in Jacobs hands — and the crowd around her — must have thrown off the natural-born painter.

“She was in a creative slump,” said Victoria, who held the canvas up for her new friend. “But I definitely have some competition.”

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