Maria Muñoz vividly remembers the day last September when her 11-year-old son Cristian was injured playing football with his friends.
He jumped up to catch a ball, but accidentally fell. Cristian felt intense stomach pain; something didn’t feel right. He called his mom and she raced to school to pick him up. Later that evening, Cristian ended up in the Kaiser Permanente Antioch Medical Center Emergency Room.
“Every minute, his pain was increasing,” said Muñoz, an instructional aide at Pioneer Elementary School. “It was awful. They told us that Cristian had internal bleeding and a possible mass.”
Physicians quickly determined that the energetic boy had a common form of childhood kidney cancer known as Wilms tumor. The impact of the football injury ripped the tumor and caused Cristian’s excruciating pain. Cristian was sent to Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center for surgery, where he was cared for by a team of physicians and nurses, including pediatric surgeon Sani Yamout, MD, and pediatric oncologist Caroline Yingwen Hu, MD.
“Wilms tumor is the most common childhood kidney cancer,” Dr. Hu said. “We see several cases each year. Symptoms can include belly pain, belly swelling, blood in the urine, nausea, and vomiting.”
However, Cristian didn’t have these symptoms because his cancer presented suddenly, Dr. Hu said. Because of that, doctors had to quickly determine a treatment plan that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Muñoz said Cristian’s Kaiser Permanente doctors and nurses have been “100% amazing.”
“I’ll never forget the nurse who held my hand before Cristian’s biopsy,” she added. “He said, ‘Your son is going to be just fine.’ That made me feel safe. Another nurse was wonderful to Cristian. She wrote him notes, sent him inspirational quotes, and told him to stay strong.”
Muñoz shared that some days are more difficult than others.
“There are days when I go into my closet and cry,” she said. “That releases my stress, and it helps. However, our support network has been incredible. So many of our friends and family members have brought us meals and have visited Cristian to cheer him up — he loves that. The community of Brentwood has supported our family tremendously. We are so grateful.”
Cristian, a Bristow Middle School student, said his courageous battle has taught him many life lessons, especially the importance of community.
Cristian has been surrounded by the love and support of his family and friends. His parents, Maria and Joel, and his siblings — Anthony, Jonathan, and Liliana — have lifted his spirits and encouraged him to stay positive and strong. Cristian’s friend, Liam Freitas, sold “Team Cristian” bracelets to the local community.
“Cristian is so brave and gregarious,” Dr. Hu said. “He has tons of friends and a very close-knit family.”
In December, Cristian was honored at Brentwood’s community-building event, Tunnels of Joy. Since 2016, Brentwood residents have walked through glorious lights to honor cancer patients. The popular fundraiser was named after Joy Bursch, who passed away in 2009. The colorful lights on La Costa Street illuminate the neighborhood and create an inclusive ambiance of unity, holiday spirit, and joy.
“The highlight of Tunnels of Joy was all the attention I received,” Cristian said. “I felt famous. I loved being able to see my friends, all the lights and the hot chocolate.”
Cristian, like many other middle-school students, enjoys listening to music and playing video games on his Xbox. He hopes to inspire other young cancer patients on his journey.
“I would advise other children battling an illness to stay strong and find a hobby that will distract your mind,” Cristian said. “If you don’t like your medication, just plug your nose and take it. My goals for the future are to be healthy and strong, and to continue to play sports. My illness has taught me how much my family and friends love and care for me.”