Putting Kids 1st into relay for life
Editors Note: This story is a part of the Sun-Gazette Purple Paper edition for Relay For Life, the largest international network of community fundraisers in the fight against cancer. The actual event will be held May 18-19, 2019 at Dobson Field in Exeter. The purpose of this paper is to help raise awareness about the Exeter Relay For Life while simultaneously raising money toward the event’s overall donation to ACS.
Boys and Girls Club staff member Martin Barahona-Naranjo inspires club kids to start first ever Relay for Life team, have raised over $13,000
By Paul Myers
exeter – Exeter’s Relay for Life inspires the community to march on for those who are battling, have battled or have succumbed to cancer. And the youth at the Exeter Boys and Girls Club is no different.
This year the Boys and Girls Club have created their first ever Relay team, inspired by Martin Barahona-Naranjo, who fought brain cancer as a teen and has lived to tell his incredible tale.
The Club’s first ever team actually started last fall. Unit director Laurena Gilbert was walking around the Exeter City Park with Martin and noticed the Relay booth.
“I turned to Martin and asked him what he would think of doing a relay team in honor of him. He turned all red and was embarrassed but he said sure…the kids were really excited,” Gilbert said.
A heavy dose of effort from the kids, and some salesmanship on the part of staff allowed them to raise well over $13,000 heading into this week. Students made ribbons, cookies, rice crispy treats and more for bake sales while staff solicited other donations.
“We made $1,000 in a month and it was all because of Martin because we wanted to show the kids that life can really set you back. But if you fight you can conquer anything,” Gilbert said.
In the month leading up to Relay, the Boys and Girls Club focused on researching different types of cancer. But what was really powerful were the conversations. Students shared their stories of family members who had passed away from cancer, and even some stories about family members currently going through cancer.
“We had a conversation with the younger ones and it was so emotional. There were tears,” Gilbert said.
Martin marches past cancer
At 14 years old a young man is going through a myriad of changes. Perhaps they are attending a new school, playing a different sport, finding new friends and then there is of course puberty. As pare
nts of teen boys can attest, adolescence is a difficult time for everyone involved. But Martin’s pubescent years were unlike most others.
Martin enjoyed spending time with his friends at Exeter High School and playing soccer. He loved it so much that he didn’t allow side splitting migraines to stand in his way. Over a six to eight month period he would become nauseous and have a fever. After a trip to the emergency room one night, doctors chalked it up to aggressive body changes, and if it got worse they should take him to Valley Chrildren’s Hospital in Madera. Then one day, the pain was so great that he fainted. By that point he had turned 15 years old.
He was rushed to Valley Children’s and went in for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam. That was when they identified the large tumor impinging on his brain near his brain stem. Martin says the pressure the tumor was putting on his brain was what caused his migraines and eventually caused him to faint.
Once the scan on the MRI revealed the tumor, Martin was rushed into emergency surgery. Doctors placed a shunt in his skull to drain the tumor and relieve the pressure. Staff at Valley Children’s added that he did not have much time to spare.
“They said if I had waited another day I would have died,” Martin said.
Unfortunately for Martin, this is just where his story began. While doctors were able to relieve the pressure, they needed to decide how to get rid of the tumor. Their first course of treatment was a yearlong stint of chemotherapy. Martin says he went through it all with chemo. He had constant bouts of fatigue, nausea and vomiting. It felt like he was dying. And after six months his tumor only got worse.
At that point he had two options: a more aggressive course of chemotherapy including radiation, or surgery. His family was told they had a big decision to make but he wouldn’t let them make the call.
“I didn’t want my family to make the decision because there was a good chance that I wouldn’t make it out of the surgery,” confessed Martin.
In his mind, radiation was not an option. The pain from chemotherapy was so bad that he shutters at the thought of it, even today. He relates his thoughts to the entire course of treatment to something most akin to post traumatic stress disorder. And as a psychology major, he would know.
All surgery is complicated, and brain surgery is the standard barer for one of the most difficult disciplines there is. It might be one of the most comparable fields in any profession as the phrase, “c’mon, this isn’t brain surgery” is used in offices across the country. Only making matters worse is the brainstem the tumor is located next to.
Martin’s doctors said the success rate was in the neighborhood of 75%, if staying alive was the only thing that mattered. Realistically, Martin said he had a 25% of living with minimal side effects. The remaining 75% was death, living on ventilation tubes in a coma, or living on ventilation tubes practically a vegetable. But for the Boys and Girls Club teacher, all of that was better than radiation and chemo.
After a second opinion at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital confirmed his original doctor’s diagnosis, Martin and his family visited University of California, San Francisco for the life threatening surgery. At 15 years old, just before he went into surgery, he was the one trying to remain strong for his family.
“My mentality was that I wasn’t going to make it out. I told my family that I’d see them when they were done, but I was thinking that I wasn’t going to make it,” admitted Martin.
Nothing short of a lot of luck and an expert surgeon’s skill, Martin woke up from surgery paralyzed on his left side. The paralysis was temporary, although he still has some weakness on his left foot and right hand to this day. After a short three weeks at UCSF he was moving around in a wheelchair, and then he was transferred back to Valley Children’s for a more aggressive routine of physical therapy where he eventually upgraded to a cane. But what got him through the rigorous rehabilitation routine were the other kids there with him.
“If we’re going to be there, we might as well be there together. Really that was the only thing that helped me keep it together,” Martin said.
The kids he became friends with were a diverse mix. Some of them were at different points in their treatment with cancer, and one kid was there for a severe infection after being mauled by a rabid dog. Martin says it was nice to gain some perspective that he wasn’t the only one going through some of the most difficult circumstances a teenager could face, and that some even have it worse.
Martin graduated from Exeter High School in 2013, and at 24 years old he just completed his junior year at Fresno State. As for his cancer, his doctors say he is clear, but not cured.
“They used the word ‘clear’, and said that I shouldn’t worry about it. It wasn’t the word I wanted but I was happy to hear it,” Martin said.
Doctors told him that his form of brain cancer, although rare, is somewhat predictable in its progress. They prefer to use the term clear as opposed to cure because they cannot see if new smaller tumors are growing because of the scar tissue from the surgery. Although, most forms of Martin’s cancer quit growing when the person turns 21.
As for his future, Martin plans to finish his bachelor’s degree and eventually move on to graduate school to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. Something he finds funny given his avoidance to therapy when it was offered as a teen. But now he sees the value in helping kids and families going through the same thing, and he has already started at the Exeter Boys and Girls Club.
In part of the club’s fundraising effort, donors would purchase a paper heart for a child who has been impacted by the disease. The kid writes what they want to say to their family who might have passed, or provide some words of encouragement to those still fighting. The hearts are still hanging on the wall in the entrance. Martin’s experience has facilitated a deep and insightful understanding around the club since they decided to form their first ever Relay team. He says his story has helped students understand and support other students who might have a family member that is going through cancer, or passed because of it. And his continued education in psychology just makes him all the more supportive.
“I got into psychology to help people in need, and to feel like I’m building relationships with these kids makes me happy,” Martin said. “I really appreciate what they are doing…they’ve fundraised and I’m proud of what they’ve done.”