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Briana Lopez doesn’t know what her favorite TV show is, but she knows how to spell petechiae. That’s what happens when you’re diagnosed with cancer at just 11-years-old.
And it was the petechiae — little red spots caused by broken blood vessels and lack of platelets — along with a few weeks of exhaustion and bruising that sent Bri to the doctor earlier this year. Those days are a blur for the Lopez-Contreras family.
“I had really been complaining about being tired — but I’m very dramatic — so it took [my parents] a couple of days to see that something was actually wrong,” Bri said.
After Bri was hit by a soccer ball and sustained a massive lesion, her mom took her to the doctor for some bloodwork. They expected to hear back after a few days, but the phone rang at 3:30 a.m. that night.
“They called and said her white cell counts were extremely high that we would have to go to the hospital right then to get them under control. I was in shock. Her white counts were up to 97,000. Normal is 12,000,” said Lopez.
Briana didn’t leave the hospital for 210 days and spent her 12th birthday in the ICU. Both Yanine and Francisco quit their jobs to focus on Bri’s health.
The truth was that she was very sick and needed to start chemo right away. And to start chemo, she needed to have surgery to place a semi-permanent Broviac port near her heart, plus a blood transfusion and platelets.
'We gotta do this together'
“Remember what I told you? When everything happened and you were scared,” Contreras asked Bri as the family sat in their living room last month, two weeks after Bri was released from her eight-month stay at the hospital.
“You said, ‘Whatever happens here, home team.’ I remember that. And that we got to do this together.”
Their “home team” — Yanine, Francisco, Briana and baby Leyla — are the core four. When Bri had tough chemo days, Leyla came for comic relief, teetering on her chubby toddler legs and making a mess of the hospital room.
And when Bri was too exhausted to shower or use the toilet, Francisco pushed her to get out of bed.
As for the times she tried faking sleep to get out of tutoring, Yanine called her bluff and encouraged her to put in the work.
It’s not that they didn’t know how tough chemo was on her, but rather that they didn’t want her to get “too comfortable” with what cancer was going to do to her and decide to stop fighting.
“I thought literally that you only got cancer from smoking at that time. And that kids couldn’t get it. So I felt in the beginning, like, what did I do to get the cancer. Is it my fault? What did I eat,” Brianna said.
Somehow, Yanine said, she forgot to tell Bri that her hair was going to fall out.
Yanine said Bri was in “full meltdown mode” over her hair.
So, without thinking much about it, she offered to shear her own waist-length hair in solidarity. Before she knew it, Bri braided her hair, chopped it off, and Yanine was sporting a bob. Bri had shaved half of her head into an edgy coif, a holding pattern between what once was and the inevitable.
A few days later, Yanine had her head buzzed first. Bri helped do the honors.
“She looked like Christopher Walken,” Bri said.
Next up, Francisco shaved his head. And finally, Bri let her locks fall to the ground. All the hair was donated to make wigs for other children fighting cancer.
“The next day, everyone was sending pictures. Grandma shaved her head. Grandpa shaved his head. Her godfather shaved his head,” said Yanine. “Everybody, so many people. Her cousins in Venezuela who have long, long hair—all of them donated their hair.”
Things got worse before they got better
But before things could get better, they got worse. And then, even worse.
The second round of chemo landed Bri in the ICU with a 107-degree fever and inflammation of her brain. She was on a cooling blanket around the clock, but it still only went down to 104 degrees. She was hallucinating and shaking. It was later determined that she would need a bone marrow transplant to survive.
Bri matched with donors twice, but was turned down for the transplant.
After their two rejections, doctors decided to use Yanine’s bone marrow to save Briana. The woman who gave birth to Briana was going to try and give her life again.
“I remember while they were putting the bone marrow in me, it looked just like a packet of blood, like a blood transfusion,” said Briana. “So my mom was like talking to it, ‘You better work, you better go in there and attack those bad cell. Fight them and beat them.’ My mom was so funny. But I was like, ‘Oh god, Mom, stop it!’”
After months of fighting, over 100 blood transfusions, and more than six rounds of chemo — one lasting for 35 straight days — Briana was finally in remission.
The family knows there’s still a long road ahead, but they also know they are strong, #BriStrong as their T-shirts say. She still needs a daily cocktail of pills and weekly clinic visits to monitor her counts. She is susceptible to infections and won’t be able to go back to school until January.
'This journey has made me appreciate my life more'
Lopez is one of the nearly 16,000 kids who were diagnosed with cancer this year. And unlike 100,000 kids worldwide, Bri will live. And, in giving back, her family set the blueprint for how they would approach the rest of their cancer journey.
Despite their difficult hand, they still find ways to lend a helping hand, whether it’s donating hair and bandanas or organizing blood drives in gratitude for all the help they’ve received.
The town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, has also stepped up for the family in a major way. The police department and the school system offered tutoring and threw fundraisers to rally the community behind the family.
The Tomorrows Children’s Fund helped with rent payments and grocery bills. Both Yanine and Francisco recognize that without the community and the fund, things would have been a lot different.
Briana said she hopes to be a child life therapist — a social worker who helps kids and families cope with illness and being hospitalized — just like her favorite one, Tara, who she credits with getting her through the darkest days of her treatment.
And by next year, she hopes to be cancer-free, enjoying a luau on the shores of Hawaii, with hair on her head that she plans to dye again.
“I feel like this journey has made me appreciate my life more in a way that I wouldn’t have noticed till I was like, 30 or something. Some of my friends are like, ‘Life is so hard, my phone got taken away’, and I just think, ‘OK,'” she said.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything over again. You see this whole other world in the hospital where life is really hard. People who think going to school is hard or say, ‘I hate going to work,' just be thankful.”