Maria Munoz vividly remembers the day last September when her 11-year-old son Cristian was injured playing football with his friends.
He accidentally fell after jumping to catch a ball. On impact, Cristian felt intense stomach pain and knew something wasn’t right. He called his mom, who raced to pick him up. Later that evening, Cristian ended up in the Kaiser Permanente Antioch Medical Center, where doctors soon determined he had a common form of childhood kidney cancer known as Wilms’ tumor. The impact of the football injury ripped the tumor and caused Cristian’s excruciating pain. Munoz said she will be forever grateful for that fall.
“We are very grateful for God and life, and another chance,” Munoz said. “I thank God every day for Cristian’s fall, because that’s how we found what he had. If it wasn’t for the fall, who knows how far it would have gotten before we found it, maybe till there was nothing anyone could do.”
Cristian was sent to Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center for surgery where he was cared for by a team of physicians and nurses, including surgeon Sani Yamout, M.D., and pediatric oncologist Caroline Yingwen Hu, M.D.
“Wilms’ tumor is the most common childhood kidney cancer,” Hu said. “We see several cases each year. Symptoms can include belly pain, belly swelling, blood in the urine, nausea and vomiting.”
Hu added Cristian didn’t have these symptoms because his cancer presented itself suddenly, forcing doctors to quickly create a treatment plan that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Though hope fills their thoughts, things have not been easy the past six months; Munoz said that some days are more difficult than others.
“There are days when I go into my closet and cry,” she said. “That releases my stress, and it helps. However, our support network has been incredible. So many of our friends and family members have brought us meals and have visited Cristian to cheer him up. He loves that. The community of Brentwood has supported our family tremendously. We are so grateful.”
Cristian underwent surgery to remove the tumor and one of his kidneys, then began radiation. Next was chemotherapy. Initially, he traveled to Oakland once a week to receive his chemotherapy treatments, but now they are every three weeks.
“That gives him a good two weeks where he feels normal,” Munoz said. “He is sick a little when he does receive his chemo, maybe four to five days, but other than that, he’s doing really good … he’s still weak and his strength is not here, but mentally and spiritually, he’s doing good.”
One silver lining Cristian has found through all of this is he likes being ‘famous.’ With family, friends and the East County community rallying round for support, he has received his fair share of attention, including being chosen as the Brentwood Tunnels of Joy Fundraiser Recipient in December, as chronicled in a Press story.
Munoz said Cristian now only has two more chemotherapy treatments left. In April, he will meet with his doctors at Kaiser and – they hope – ring the bell to signal himself as being in remission.
Doctors will continue to monitor Cristian closely. But after five years of clean scans and labs, he could be considered cancer-free. The family is making plans for a vacation once their cancer journey ends, and Cristian looks forward to returning to school in the fall.
Like other kids his age, Cristian enjoys listening to music and playing video games. He said he hopes to inspire other young cancer patients on his journey.
“I would advise other children battling an illness to stay strong and find a hobby that will distract your mind,” Cristian said. “If you don’t like your medication, just plug your nose and take it. My goals for the future are to be healthy and strong, and to continue to play sports. My illness has taught me how much my family and friends love and care for me.”
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