In 2009, the Diaz family was the picture of happiness. Jessica and Francisco were teachers in Azusa Unified and their two sons were 3 and 5 years old.
Jessica was a dual immersion teacher at Valleydale Elementary and Francisco had taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Magnolia, Paramount and Murray elementaries for 10 years when the recession hit. Dual immersion programs were cut and in spring of 2009, Francisco was one of the many casualties in the education field.
And then in the summer, Joaquin started getting fevers and a severe leg pain that wouldn’t go away.
“That’s how leukemia and a lot of the blood cancers start, because the cancer cells get so compacted in the bone marrow and that’s painful,” Jessica said. “So he was having frequent fevers, they kept giving him antibiotics and it was like, `why aren’t the antibiotics working?”‘
A month after Joaquin’s third birthday and a month after the symptoms started, a new doctor ordered a blood test.
“An hour later I got the phone call, and they can’t tell you over the phone what they suspect it is,” Jessica recalled, “but they told me, `You need to get into the oncology/hematology floor at Loma Linda. There’s a bed there for you yesterday, as fast as you can get there, just pack some stuff and go.’
“And that’s when you know.”
That was July 13, 2009. The next six months were a nightmare, Jessica said. The family, already hit by Francisco’s layoff, struggled with insurance to cover the medical bills. They lost their home to foreclosure so they moved to Rialto, closer to the hospital. With that one call, their dreams — four kids, house, careers — were all put on hold.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is one of the most common of the childhood cancers, said Dr. Saro Armenian, assistant professor of pediatrics and population sciences department at City of Hope. ALL is an umbrella term for a cancer of the white blood cell and is treated primarily through chemotherapy, either by vein, mouth or spinal cord.
“In the early ’60s, if someone had this it was virtually incurable in pediatric children,” Joaquin’s doctor said. “Through the development of chemo agents and by combining various agents of chemo together we’ve been able to raise cure rates to above 85 percent for children.”
Current research is directed toward giving children therapy in a smarter way, Armenian said. Where treatment now is a sort of “carpetbombing,” the doctor explained that the focus has now turned to targeting only leukemia cells and decreasing the intensity of treatment without reducing the success rate.
“The research is twofold: one, we’re trying to find smarter drugs targeted toward leukemia itself,” Armenian said. “And two, if there aren’t smarter drugs, can we give the current drugs in a better way, to minimize side effects without compromising cure rates?”
Joaquin is in the home stretch of his treatment, Jessica said. The family transferred from Loma Linda Children’s Hospital to City of Hope because of the Duarte hospital’s survivorship program.
“When you have a newborn, the first one you have, they tell you, `OK it’s time for you to go home’ and that’s when you have a feeling of, wait, I have to take the baby home?” dad Francisco said. “What am I going to do if he’s sick or how am I going to know if he’s hungry, so it’s the same thing, when September comes we’re going to be like, what do we do now?”
In September, the doctors will remove a port planted under Joaquin’s skin where the chemotherapy is injected and Joaquin will be free to be a normal 6-year-old.
“He’s been on chemo for about three years so it’s like a safety net,” Jessica said. “Because I know while he’s on chemo the chances of him relapsing are zero. Relapses happen when the chemo stops.”
Joaquin knows he’s sick, mom said. “I think he suspects something scary is going on because sometimes as parents you just can’t hide the fear.
“But he was so little when he was diagnosed that I think that’s just his reality.”
And they’re waiting to see if the side effects of the chemo — liver damage, hypoglycemia, arthritis — will cause lasting damage.
“Being in the pediatric cancer community, you make friends and you lose friends, and it’s really hard to explain to a child that they died from the same thing that brother has.”