In the spring of 2017, Danna Flores was running around her house singing at the top of her lungs. She was almost a month away from turning 6 years old and was practicing a song she would sing with her kindergarten classmates in a presentation to commemorate Mother’s Day.
“She would sing to me a little bit but she never let me hear the entire song. She would tell me: I can’t sing to you anymore because it’s a surprise!” said Yenny Flores, Danna’s mother.
But Danna didn’t get to participate in the act with her friends in early May 2017. She also wasn’t able to attend her kindergarten graduation a few weeks later.
Instead, she was lying in a hospital bed, undergoing aggressive cancer treatments for a newly diagnosed tumor and fighting for her life.
Two months earlier, Yenny began to notice that Danna no longer wanted to eat and woke up in the middle of the night complaining of severe stomach pains. Danna started losing weight. When they took her to the pediatrician, she was diagnosed with anemia, they gave her medication, and the doctor told Yenny to give her food that was high in iron. But none of that worked.
Finally, on April 20, 2017, Danna was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of cancerous tumor that is born in the nervous tissue and normally develops in young children. The cancer was in stage 4, which means that it had already affected the bone marrow and several organs in Danna’s small body.
From then on the family’s life took a dramatic turn. The active, witty little girl with big brown eyes and long black hair, who dreams of being a police officer and loves pizza, began to debilitate and lose more weight. The parents, who also have an 11-year-old son named Juan David, reorganized their schedule around Danna’s treatments and hospital stays.
Two weeks before Danna’s diagnosis, Yenny, 33, a stay-at-home mom, learned that she was pregnant with their third child, Samuel, who is now 1 year old. Because of the pregnancy, Yenny was not allowed to approach her daughter during the days Danna received radiation treatments. Then her husband, Juan Flores, 44, had to take off work to care for Danna. The financial situation tightened. The family couldn’t afford rent and eventually had to move into the maternal grandmother’s home in Doral.
At the hospital, Danna had many questions. Why does “the stick” follow her everywhere? she asked, referring to the movable pole from which her medicine hung. Why was her hair falling out? Why couldn’t she go to school with her friends anymore?
“It was difficult at first for her to understand all the changes, because she is just a little girl. But the most important thing for us was her health so any sacrifice was worth it,” Yenny said.
In August of this year the family received hopeful news: The huge tumor above Danna’s kidney was gone, the treatment had worked, and she was free of cancer. Danna returned to school and her hair began to grow again.
But soon she started limping and in a few weeks lost strength in her legs. The cancer had returned and now she has three tumors, one in the right knee and one on each side of the pelvis.
“When you hear your kid’s diagnosis the first time, you feel like they are killing you,” Yenny said recently, sitting in the room at Baptist Hospital in Kendall where Danna is receiving chemotherapy again. “But with the relapse you feel like you are being buried. It’s like going through the same thing again but with an even greater fear that she will not get over it.”
Yenny said that Danna has already gone through all possible treatments to fight her disease, including stem cell transplantation. Now, the parents’ hope is to be able to take Danna to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for a trial treatment. The cancer center has developed two new drugs to treat advanced neuroblastoma.
The Flores’ holiday wish is to raise money to move to New York when they can finally transfer Danna. The treatment is at least a year long, Yenny said. The family has a fundraising campaign at gofundme.com/salvemosaDanna.
“We don’t have anyone who can host us [in New York], the only thing we have is the car to drive to New York. We don’t know where we are going to stay, how we are going to live. I can’t leave my two other children behind,” Yenny said, her voice breaking. “But even if we have to sleep outside the hospital in the car, we will continue to fight.”
The family was nominated for the Wish Book program by the Children’s Cancer Caring Center, which helps with the expenses and treatments of children with cancer.
Laura Lebret, the center’s family liaison, said that she understands the needs of the Flores family firsthand. Lebret’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer as a child and her family also received assistance from the Children’s Cancer Caring Center.
“Danna’s family really has many needs,” Lebret said. “When a family receives the word that their child has cancer, they feel, and I tell you from my own experience, that a disaster is approaching. You lose monetary, emotional and physical stability.”
The Flores family’s situation has reminded Lebret of her own struggle years ago.
“Danna has gone through a bone marrow transplant; in the middle of it all a little brother was born; the father lost his job because for months he had to take care of Danna. They have lost their house, they have had to go live with the grandmother and now, with the relapse, they would have to go to New York,” Lebret said. “They need all the possible support”.
But Lebret said she knows there is hope. Today, Lebret’s daughter is 20 years old; she has a job and is attending college.
Danna describes herself as “strong and brave.” For two years in a row she has dressed up as a police officer for Halloween. It is her dream job because she wants to “take away the bad people who steal things from others,” she said. The trip to New York doesn’t worry her. She said she knows “everything will be OK,” and she is most excited about all the New York-style pizza she will eat while there.
In true Danna style, she is fighting off cancer with a high dose of courage.
“The doctor told me I have three little balls [tumors] that we have to heal now,” Danna explained to a reporter from her hospital bed one recent afternoon, taking a break from playing the children’s video game “Monster Battle” on her tablet.
“Are you afraid at all?”
“No, because fear only lives here,” she said without hesitation, holding her bald head between her small hands. “And I’m not afraid.”
Then she becomes distracted with her game and asks her mother to help read the instructions for the next battle.
Yenny starts reading: “It says: Do not open this door…”
“I opened it!” Danna shouted, laughing.
“Why?” Yenny asked.
“Because the monsters are in there and I have to fight them.”
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