Teen leukemia patient raises awareness of childhood cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time to remind our community that childhood cancer is not only real, but perhaps more prevalent than you realize. We caught up with a young cancer fighter and a specialist from Texas Children's Cancer Center to make sure families know about the warning signs.

Kayla Mendoza was only 13 years old, when she started experiencing odd body aches. Something just didn't feel right.

"She was having muscle pains and we would take her to the emergency room because it got so bad, where she couldn't walk and they did blood work, but nothing was found. They're like, well, she could have pulled a muscle, or then we thought it was growing pains," explains Kayla's loving mom, Jacqueline.

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Things only got worse and finally, a diagnosis they never expected.

"When you get hit with those words, you get the wind knocked out of you. And you honestly don't know which way to turn, how to cope with everything in that moment, but you've just got to stay faithful, and know that the Lord above has something better in store," states Jacqueline.

Kayla was hit with the words: You have cancer.

"I was a very healthy child and I was very active, so when I found out, when I got diagnosed, everyone was in shock," says Kayla.

She immediately began treatment for leukemia at Texas Children's Cancer Center. She never could've imagined that she would spend her 14th birthday in the hospital, but workers at TCH were ready to make it as special as possible, including some puppy love.

"It makes me happy, takes me away from my mind from being in treatment and everything," states Kayla.

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It's important to realize that Kayla is far from alone. We talked to Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, a Hematology-Oncology Specialist at Texas Children's Cancer Center, who is helping us raise awareness about childhood cancer.

"I think that people don't really understand that children actually get cancer, and of course the numbers are much smaller than the numbers of adults with cancer, but it's still a problem. I think at pretty much any school in the city, you're going to have one or two children who either have had cancer or are currently going through it, so it's a problem," says Dr. Dreyer.

She says symptoms, like Kayla's, do vary, but shares some warning signs that parents should be aware of.

"The symptoms can be subtle: weakness, limping, a bunch of bruises, persistent low-grade fevers, infections of the skin that don't go away. Those are some of the signs of things like leukemia. Of course, lumps and bumps where they shouldn't be are signs of other things like lymphoma, maybe even some solid tumors," the doctor explains.

Kayla is relieved about promising treatment for her cancer, but it hasn't been easy. The loss of her long locks was devastating. "The first time I was shocked and very sad. It was heart-wrenching and I just didn't like how it happened so quick," says Kayla. She's embracing her second round of lost hair though by rocking pink and purple!

Many people have helped Kayla through this tough time, from her loving friends and family, to organizations like the Faris Foundation, which holds events in the hospital to remind kids they're just that - kids.  She loved their "Let There Be Gold Carnival"!

"They had this section you can paint a ribbon, and you can write on a ribbon to keep others fighting and to not quit, and then they had a section where you played basketball, just like pretty much to see how many shoots, you can do," says Kayla. It also helped her loved ones, because a cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. "My mom, she loved it. She liked seeing me smile," says Kayla, while smiling.

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Kayla's mother couldn't be more proud of her young cancer fighter.

"She is a fighter! She really is, through everything that she's gone through. Her worst moments - she still tried to be herself, and try to stay positive," exclaims Jacqueline.

Dr. Dreyer adores seeing patients like this thrive and always adds a positive note, as well. "The exciting part about childhood cancer awareness month is our overall cure rates now for all children with cancer are about 80%, which is astounding," says Dr. Dreyer.  She goes on to say, it's astounding because childhood cancer happens to be the lowest funded cancer.

Only 4% of the billions of dollars in government funds spent on cancer research each year is directed towards treating childhood cancer. Dr. Dreyer says many organizations that help TCH patients have been hit hard financially during the pandemic and she hopes our community will rally around them, including the Periwinkle Foundation, Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Family Alliance, and Snowdrop Foundation.

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