Meteorologists predicted a stormy Sunday morning and that’s exactly what we got during Advocate Children's Hospital-Oak Lawn’s Running for Hope 5K run/walk race.
Most of us were finishing up when the heavy rain hit.
Ask me if I’m faster than a sixth grader?
I ran alongside 12-year-old pediatric cancer survivor, Ayiana Hernandez of Plainfield. I’ve been her running mentor the previous eight weeks.
I don’t know what kind of turbo she had in her Saucony shoes but I got left behind when she saw that finish line. Her parents, Miguel Hernandez and Virginia Rivera cheered on the sideline with her older brother, Nathan.
There was great courage displayed at that race.
Sumaya Hussein of Bridgeview ran with her older brother, Omar, and her mentor.
“I loved every minute, even the rain,” she said.
She’s a survivor of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, diagnosed at the age of two.
All through training Omar’s been her guide, literally. They were tethered by a hand strap.
“Cancer treatment complications have left me completely blind,’’ she said. “Omar’s been right by my side, helping me whenever I need him.”
Ayiana and I can attest to that, we’ve crossed paths with them and many others each week. Daughter and mother duo Valerie (Val) and Charlotte Lontka of Chicago preferred to walk with their mentor, Adriana Carmona of Bridgeview.
“It’s hard for me to run.’’ Valerie said. “I have Neurofibromatosis which causes fibrous tumors to grow in and on nerve endings, among other things I had 28 rounds of radiation in 1999, in 2006, I learned of a third tumor, a meningioma behind my pituitary gland caused from radiation. But, the good news is, all of my tumors have been stable since 2009.”
After hearing that, I applauded her for standing, let alone walking 3.2 miles.
Ayiana is one of the youngest Pediatric Oncology Survivorship Transition(POST) Challenger’s to race this year, and also one of the most recent in remission.
“In October 2013, Ayiana leaned to kiss me good morning and I noticed a lump on her neck,’” Rivera said.
After several doctor visits, she was diagnosed with Large B Cell Lymphoma/NHL.
“The doctor said, ‘Your daughter has Lymphoma,’’’ the mother said. “Ignorantly, I asked, ’What is Lymphoma?’ He said ‘cancer!’ I didn’t even know how to absorb news like that.”
Ayiana’s Chemotherapy began Christmas of 2013 and went through the early 2014. Rivera said they had wished for a non-traditional Christmas that year but cancer wasn’t what they expected.
“We planned to take the family to Disney World. I guess God had other plans,” Rivera said, “Cancer has taken many lives, even though we’re believers, we thought it meant death. Seeing our daughter in pain allowed doubt to take us to a place without hope.”
Jessica Mitchell of Bridgeview said she felt the same way at one point. “I’ve lost three of my best friends to cancer, in 2007 2008 and 2012. The friend I lost in 2012 had the exact same cancer as me. We were diagnosed one month apart to the day. She was the one person I felt really understood what I was going through. When I lost her, it broke me,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell said her grief has been reduced by an unexpected miracle. “I was told my chances to have children were slim due to Chemotherapy. But, just 2 ½ years after treatment, I had a daughter, Anastazya. She’s five years old.”
Naturally so, Ayiana’s family’s concerns were normal. But Ayiana said her faith was strong.
“By March of 2014, I'd completed five rounds of chemotherapy.” she said, “Afterwards, I said – ‘that’s it, God healed me, I’m done!’”
What Ayiana felt in her heart would later be confirmed by doctors. Rivera said Ayiana’s cancer is no longer detectable. March marked one year of being cancer free. To commemorate the occasion, Ayiana and her family finally took that trip to Disney World, compliments of Make a Wish Foundation.
“We never stopped praying for her. She was in good hands, ACH staff, are an excellent group of people, we consider them family. They treated more than cancer. They met her social and emotional needs too.” Rivera said, “When Ayiana lost her hair, she took an interest in makeup. It made her feel pretty in spite of losing her hair. While she was in the hospital, many of the nurses allowed Ayiana to do their makeup. They referred to her as ‘The Makeup Doctor.’ She even started a YouTube channel to show off her skills.’’
Ayiana wasn’t the only one bald in her family. Members shaved their heads to support St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for childhood cancer.
I’m privileged to have mentored Ayiana, for the Running for Hope race. She’s a brave little warrior.