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Routine lab work leads to leukemia diagnosis for El Paso boy

Frank Gonzalez Jr.
Maria Gonzalez

EL PASO, Texas -- A mother advocated on behalf of her son and unknowingly helped uncover a potentially lethal disease lurking out of sight.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. ABC-7 is profiling an El Paso family who endured treatment.

Maria Gonzalez was concerned about her son, Frank. She thought the 12-year-old was gaining too much weight and worried about obesity and its associated health problems.

During his annual checkup Maria voiced her concern to Frank's pediatrician, who suggested running lab work.

From literally one day to the next their lives were upended.

"The minute she said, 'Something's not looking right,' I got worried," Maria Gonzalez said.

Frank's blood work showed he had an aggressive form of leukemia.

"I thought I was going to die"

That was March 12, 2019. By March 15 -- three days later -- he was undergoing chemotherapy.

"He was admitted that (day) and we stayed there for five months without going home," Maria said.

Frank has played soccer since he was 6 years old. But he told ABC-7 the treatment sapped his strength and endurance.

"When I first started (chemotherapy) and my hair started falling out, I did feel that I was gonna die," Frank said. "I could barely walk and I actually couldn't run at all. my legs felt heavy."

Frank said the few times he received chemo through his spine were the most painful moments of his treatment.

"I just didn't think about the bad things. I kept praying," Frank said.

"I asked (the doctors) why did he get cancer," Maria said. "I would always guilt myself: because I was a bad mother? Because I didn't feed him right? Maybe if I gave him more vegetables. Maybe if I would have forced him to eat better."

Doctors don't know why kids get cancer, said Dr. Ranjan Bista. Bista is the medical director at El Paso Children's Hospital.

"Unlike adult cancer, it's not related to whether family members have done anything wrong, or, the person himself has done anything wrong," Bista said, adding, "It's basically bad luck."

A second chance at life

Frank, now 15, has been off chemo and cancer-free for a year. 

The realization moves his mom to tears.

"Frank is a very strong young man," Maria said. "I know there is medication and doctors that helped us get through. But I do also feel that God made a miracle because he gave Frank a second opportunity of life."

The next hurdle for the Parkland High School sophomore is preparation for soccer team tryouts.

"I feel great because I was really tired, I couldn't do much," Frank said. "I don't wake up with pain or sore muscles. I'm starting to get my normal life back. I can go to school and make friends and not just be on the computer and be at home. It feels good."

Childhood cancer treatment means a lifetime of checkups

Frank Gonzalez has been cancer free since August 2021.

But he will have to schedule follow-ups for the rest of his life.

Amanda French, a pediatric oncology nurse at El Paso Children's Hospital, said the hospital at EPCH accepts new patients up to the age of 26 to accommodate people like Frank.

"In our clinic, I've seen patients up to age 35, 36, still coming because we do have a survivorship program," French said. "These kids need lifelong follow-up (because of) secondary malignancies. (It's) because we gave them chemotherapy, steroids, all these treatments."

Federal law states adult children enrolled in college can stay on their parent's health insurance through the age of 26.

Those who qualify for financial assistance can also receive discounted care through University Medical Center of El Paso.

Article Topic Follows: Health
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stephanie valle

Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.

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