When she was just three, Jennifer Gonzalez endured a year of chemotherapy and surgery to remove one of her adrenal glands.
Doctors told her parents, her chances were “either way.”
They also told them because of the medication and treatments to battle the neuroblastoma she was fighting, Jennifer, if she even made it to adulthood, may never have children, or at the very least it would be difficult.
Now, 28 years later, she’s defied the odds. The 2004 graduate of San Benito High School has four girls, including a set of twins and is as healthy as ever.
She’s also used her early illness to carve her own path to helping others as a pediatric cancer nurse at Driscoll Children’s Specialty Center in Brownsville.
“It is why I became a nurse,” she says about her illness. “I wanted to work with kids.”
As she sits holding her 9-month-old baby girl, Jennifer talks about how much she loves her work and is embarking on moving even higher in her career.
But, for now, it’s all about working with kids and being that calming influence she remembers as a child herself in and out of hospitals.
“I always wanted to be a nurse, just that experience,” she says as she bounces the girl on her lap. “In the hospital, you don’t remember the doctors, you remember the nurses.”
Jennifer’s mother, can likely be thanked for her survival. Jennifer said her mother’s intuition told her something was wrong.
“She kept taking me to the doctor the summer I turned three and said something was wrong,” Jennifer says. “No, they said it was just a virus. But, I was sickly, cold, fevers and just not myself.”
Finally, a doctor, actually a resident, felt her stomach and located a lump.
“They found something on Friday and by Monday I was in Houston having surgery,” she says.
“I remember things happening to me,” Jennifer says. “I was held down for shots and they were sticking tubes down my nose.”
She remembers not wanting to take the medicine, so she and her parents would have “Coca Cola tea parties” because that was the only way she would take the medications.
She also remembers a little boy she met in the hospital. They had the same diagnosis and stage. He didn’t make it.
Those are all experiences that help her in her job every day.
“I tell some people the story — usually the older kids and the parents,” she says. “I understand how scared the kids are and I don’t get frustrated with them. They are going through a lot. I can understand that more than those who haven’t gone through it. I connect more.”
Living past cancer
Although Jennifer is cancer free and considered cured, it always is in the back of her mind.
“Once you are a cancer survivor, that fear of the kids having it is there,” she says. “Even though I am a nurse now and know they can’t have it anymore than any other kid, it is still there.”
She also did all the same things everyone else did as a teenager and then a young adult.
In high school, she played sports like track, soccer and volleyball.
“I have been relatively healthy,” she says.
She has had her thyroid removed and takes some medications because of the chemo from so long ago.
But, every day, she sees how the kids react.
“Kids bounce back,” she says. “Kids get medication and chemo and the next day they are in school and playing with their friends.”
One of the most common solid tumors in children and about 1,000 patients are diagnosed each year in the U.S. with neuroblastoma.
It is a type of childhood cancer that develops in nerve tissue outside of the central nervous system.
It usually begins in the adrenal gland on top of the kidney, but can be found anywhere along the spine. Despite the name, neuroblastoma is not a brain tumor.
It is the most common extra cranial solid tumor that affects children. About half of the children with aggressive neuroblastoma will die from the disease.