Last Update: Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hundreds Take Part in San Fernando Relay for Life Event Honors Cancer Victims And Survivors PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia, Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 17 July 2014 01:34

Brianna Perez, 8, sister of Melissa who has been a leukemia patient since she was 4 years old.

Dozens of teams and hundreds of people took part in the 11th annual San Fernando Relay for Life, a 24-hour walka- thon filled with music, food and activities to raise awareness and funds for the fight against cancer.

This year’s event took place on July 12 and 13 at San Fernando Recreation Park, where participating relay teams camped out and team members took turns walking a track in honor of those who lost their battles with the dreaded disease along with others who are still fighting or have survived it.

Adriana Serrano, spokesperson for the San Fernando Relay for Life, said more than 1,000 people took part in the event, and raised more than $50,000.

Among those survivors participating in the relay was Melissa Perez, a soon to be 7-yearold who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was four, and is now recovering after 27 months of chemotherapy.

“It was a little bit of a celebration. The doctors don’t want to call it remission, but we’re still celebrating everything that we’ve been through,” said her mother Claudia Chavez.

“It was very emotional to me. Only the people that have gone through something like that know the hardships,” she said.

Perez was also touched. Chavez said her daughter was crying when a girl started to sing after a slideshow was presented to the crowd, showing those who have passed away and cancer survivors.

“She’s pretty happy all the time and for her to feel the emotion, it got to her,” the mom said.

The Diagnosis

Perez’ health problems began when she was four. She had been sick on-and-off with what appeared to her parents to be a throat infection that didn’t go away.

“At some point, the infection in her tonsils got so big she could hardly talk. After three series of antibiotics she didn't get better,” Chavez recalled. “She would get really high fever, and after that we knew something was wrong.”

Fireman from local stations 98 and Fire Station 75 whipped up a pancake breakfast for the close of the relay.

Her mother requested a blood test and the doctor noticed that Perez’ red blood cells were falling. Subsequent check-ups showed the same pattern and the doctor told her parents she would need a blood transfusion.

They were sent to Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, where more tests revealed the hard truth — Perez had leukemia.

“It’s pretty devastating to hear something like that,” Chavez said. “You hear ‘cancer’ and you feel she’s going to die.”

But the doctor told her it was treatable and Perez could survive it.

Thus began 27 months of intense chemotherapy, and constant doctor visits and hospitalizations.

“She had to be hospitalized several times throughout these two years and three months. Back in March was the last time she had chemo,” Chavez said.

Melissa Perez (Right) has been a leukemia patient since she was 4 years old.

During the treatments, doctors also found bacteria in Perez’ blood, a dangerous condition where the patient can die in a matter of hours. “It’s pretty scary,” Chavez recalled.

Still, Perez kept her spirits up through that difficult time.

“Perhaps her being young, not really realizing everything that’s going on, helped her deal with all that,” Chavez said. “The biggest fear for her was the pokes she would get in her spine to pull a little bit of liquid out and put a little bit of chemo in.”

If dealing with her health wasn’t enough, the family had to contend with the sudden and unexpected loss of her father, Mario Perez, who died of a heart attack a year after Perez’ diagnosis.

“He was her biggest warrior. Dad was working nights and was able to take her to treatment for a whole year, and they got to spend a lot of time together,” Chavez said.

“Maybe he worked his magic up there (in heaven) to help her,” she added.

Today, Perez has recovered her hair and has a nearly normal life.

“She’s done with the treatment protocol. For now she just has to keep going every month to test her blood. Our biggest fear is that she doesn’t have a relapse because relapses tend to come back in the brain,” Chavez said.

The only problems left over for Perez are random headaches and the back pain she still gets.

But for Perez, and the rest of her family members who were at the San Fernando Relay for Life, the event was a chance to celebrate and share with others in similar situation.

Circle of friends team members Marylou Muñoz and sister Michelle Canizales during the survivor lap.

“We had a little crew of family members,” said Chavez, who’s already thinking about next year’s event. “I’m even thinking of starting our own team. If it all stays as it is now, we’ll be there next year.”

“Circle Of Friends”

For Marylou Munoz, 52, this year’s Relay was more emotional than past ones because she was not the only cancer survivor in her family to take part in the event. Her sister Michelle Canizalez, 54, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, walked alongside her.

They are both members of the team “Circle of Friends” that includes 17 members, and raised more than $3,000.

“It’s very difficult. We had not had anybody in the family with cancer,” said Munoz, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.

She underwent chemotherapy shortly after and also had to deal with the death of her father while battling the disease. A few months later, Canizalez' stomach was hurting and a medical check-up revealed ovarian cancer.

Canizalez underwent a new form of treatment for the disease but did not react well to it, and ended up being hospitalized more than a month for something that was supposed to be a one-day thing.

Munoz has been taking part in the walk since 2011, when she first stood on the sidelines and watched “because I wasn’t strong enough to walk.” She joined team “Circle of Friends” the next year and has been taking part ever since.

She and Canizalez did the survivor walk this year, a very emotional moment for both of them.

“It’s empowering to see so many survivors walking and when we get to exchange stories, it’s really inspirational,” Munoz said. “It gives you real hope.”

The event was also a big deal for her sister, who recently went back to work after several months of battling her disease.

“It's nice to have somebody so close who understands what you went through. We have each other to rely on,” Munoz said.

For more information about the Relay for Life, visit

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 July 2014 19:47

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