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Learning from child cancer survivors

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer stage 3 last year there were scary moments when I thought that I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday. This week I will blow out my candles and make a wish with a shining cancer survivor star sparkling on my shoulder. The cancer free card won’t come until 2017.

On Sunday, National Cancer Survivor’s Day, I met several inspiring children from Miami Children’s Hospital, as part of their annual “celebration of life” party at the Miami Children’s Museum.

At the museum’s police officers and firefighters section, Daniel Torres was wearing a royal blue jacket. He turned into a traffic cop after climbing onto a white, stationary motorcycle.

“I’m not scared,” David Torres, a 7-year-old boy with a mohawk hairstyle said. “ Mami, mami watch me. Grrrrung, Grrru Rrung. I can go real fast.”

“He is 100 percent cancer-free now, after 3-and-a half years of extensive chemotherapy. It was very difficult. I lost everything, my house, my job,” said Daniel’s mom, Sonia Leal. “He was diagnosed with leukemia, central nervous system tumor 3, meningitis … I thought he was going to die. He is a miracle.”

Dr. Ziad A. Khatib, of the hospital’s pediatric hematology-oncology division, said children with cancer usually have a better prognosis than adults. They do not contract the type of cancers that adults do, i.e., lung, pancreatic, breast, or colon cancers, Khatib said. Instead, they are diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors and sarcoma.

“We can cure about 80 percent of childhood cancer,” Khatib said. Treatment, he said, involves years of chemotherapy, sometimes radiation therapy, surgery, and maintenance therapy.

Paul Berman said he struggled as his 6-month-old son, Colby, went through years of treatment for leukemia. Colby had to be hospitalized once a month.

“Every parent going through this wants to trade places with their kids,” Berman said. “My wife had to stop working. You can’t cry. You can’t fall apart. You have to put on a smiley face, and stay strong for your family.”

His blue-eyed son Colby, now 7, was listening, while he played Scrabble with other cancer survivors. His older brother Austin, 9, and older sister Jessie, 11, remember the “amazing ‘Colby Conquers Cancer’ party.”

“Yes, I had cancer,” said Colby, as if he were describing a common cold. He returned to playing Scrabble.

For Victoria Mejia, 9, the days of having a bald head, tummy aches, chest pains, and countless drug infusions are behind her now. Her honey brown hair was long and her cheeks were rosy. She remembers the weeks after her seventh birthday when she began to get sick.

“I was in the hospital and all the family was coming in the same day that I was rushed in,” she said. “My mom and dad weren’t crying but everyone else seemed sad. I was like wondering ‘What’s going on?’ It’s nice to be alive.”

After chemotherapy, she returned to school “feeling strange” with a bald head. She wore hats. Her dad bought her scarves that made her “look like a pirate.” And a friend gave her a Disney Hannah Montana wig that made her “look silly, like Dolly Parton.”

Sometimes she chose not to cover her bald head in public. At a restaurant, she remembers when a teenage boy at another table nearby pointed at her.

“He told another little girl, ‘Oh my God! Look at that freak over there!’ And I was sad,” Victoria said. “They didn’t know what I had gone through to get there.”

Victoria said she thinks her experience with cancer has turned her into a more grateful person.

“Sometimes little girls if they don’t get what they want, like a lipstick or something, they start crying all about it,” she said. “I think I rather live life to the fullest than cry about a lipstick.”

I asked Victoria if she ever thought about the possibility of a relapse.

“No,” she declared.

When I said I feared breast cancer, Victoria wouldn’t hear of it.

“You shouldn’t be scared, because the doctors are going to do their best to help you stay alive,” she said.

I told her I was having a “joie de vivre” birthday party on Friday night. She invited me to her Chuck E. Cheese birthday party.

“If you have hope, and if you keep saying this is going to get better, instead of being scared, life gives you hope, and with hope comes happiness,” said the wise angel, who is turning 10 on Thursday.