The organization breeds and trains Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers to become service companions or for other individual and facility needs.
Over the last year, the Portland, Oregon-based Children’s Cancer Association (CCA) has provided services to more than 30,000 seriously ill children and their family members.
Ruth Zuniga and Andy Soria, along with their little girl Sol, were one such family. Originally from Costa Rica, Andy and Ruth moved to the U.S. to pursue their PhDs and had decided not to have children. However, their “ray of sunshine,” Sol, had other plans.
A life in and out of hospitals
At only two years old, Sol has known a life of hospitals and procedures since she was born. While Sol was in utero, her kidneys were retaining water. When she was born, her family was asked to visit the hospital every six months for scans.
Between her six-month and twelve-month scans, the doctors discovered a mass. Then, only a day after her first birthday, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, which later became high-risk stage IV neuroblastoma. In the year since, she’s undergone five surgeries, six rounds of chemo, one stem-cell rescue, twelve rounds of radiation, and six rounds of immunotherapy.
The sunny personality of Sol
Even through all the treatment, if you looked at Sol and saw her laugh, you’d never know the burden she’s endured. “The strength of her spirit is unmatched,” says her dad, Andy. “Even after a tough procedure, she’ll give us a smile and a high five.”
Sol loves petting farm animals, pretending to be a dinosaur, blowing bubbles, and running around in her rubber boots. “She’s all about those boots,” laughed her mother, Ruth. “She even sleeps in them!” Sol also loves music, especially the song “Best Day of My Life” by the band American Authors, which perfectly sums up Sol’s outlook on life.
She seems to greet each day with the song’s lyrics in her head: “This is gonna be the best day of my life.” For this and many other reasons, Sol was nominated as one of CCA’s Heroes, which is a group of kids and teens nominated by CCA and hospital staff for their exceptional courage and bravery in the face of serious illness.
A long day at the hospital
The day after Sol’s first birthday, her parents learned that she had a growing, low-risk mass in her adrenal gland. She had surgery to remove it, but not long after her tumor returned. This time it was the size of a baseball, wrapped around several organs, and it was high-risk. Before they knew it, Sol was in the operating room again, and one week later she received her first dose of chemotherapy.
In the mountain of paperwork they received from the hospital social worker, one form in particular stood out from the rest: CCA’s Chemo Pal Mentor Program application. CCA’s award-winning Chemo Pal mentors play games, listen to music, share hobbies, or simply offer the comfort of companionship — relieving the anxiety, loneliness, and isolation experienced by children in treatment.
The perfect match for Sol
“The Chemo Pal Program caught my attention because, without any family in the U.S., we knew we needed support, especially from people who could make Sol laugh and give her attention that was not medically related. The Chemo Pal specialists had found her the perfect match just a few days after applying,” says Ruth.
“We don’t know how they did it, but CCA found the perfect match for Sol: someone energetic and kind, and who understands that playing or being with a sick toddler is not always fun. Her name is Emily, and she and Sol have spent many hours blowing bubbles, reading, and doing puzzles together. She has brought so many joyful moments to Sol and a sense of relief and support to the whole family,” says Andy.
Sol has also been served by CCA’s MyMusicRx team while in the hospital. She and her favorite Music Specialist, Annie, would sing lullabies when Sol was having a tough day. Other days, they would rock out, dance, and sing out loud at the top of their lungs to Katy Perry songs.
“The magic of the Music Specialists is that they are very much in tune with where Sol is at physically and emotionally, and they adapt the song rhythm based on how she is feeling. I will never forget: one day we left the PICU, Sol was very sick, and we could not console her."
"The MyMusicRx Specialists came to the room, sang her favorite song in a lullaby rhythm, and Sol calmed down and fell asleep. You have no idea what that meant to us. At that moment, our tears of pain and sadness became tears of gratitude,” said Ruth. “Those moments of joy are priceless and will be in our hearts and minds forever.”
And now, the GREAT news from Ruth and Andy
"We’re also pleased to share that after almost one and a half years, Sol ended treatment in October. We hope she is now cancer-free and stays that way to enjoy a long, happy, and healthy life."
"We have found in CCA a family and support system that we would never have imagined existed. The only way we have been able to survive this journey without having any direct family in the U.S. to help us has been through the unimaginable support from our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and organizations like CCA."
"It is thanks to contributions from people like you that CCA is able to break the pain and isolation that cancer treatment brings to kids like Sol and to families like ours. We have seen firsthand the way CCA can transform so many precious moments with joy.”
A version of this story previously appeared on CCA's blog on November 20, 2017.
For children diagnosed with serious illness and their families, every moment is precious. At the Children's Cancer Association (CCA), our goal is to transform as many of those moments as possible — with joy.Learn More
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