Health & Fitness

How an 8-year-old cancer survivor is giving a Modesto community fair a new aim

Starting in August 2014, when she was just 3, and continuing over the next 18 months, Zoya Hafiz underwent four surgeries, stem cell transplants, chemotherapy and 20 rounds of radiation. While visiting her daughter at Hughes Elementary in Modesto on Tuesday, Whitney Hafiz looked at her and said, “She’s the hero of our family.”

To her principal, Jeri Hamera, the second-grader and cancer survivor is “a warrior” who has inspired organizers of this Saturday’s Creekwood Community Fair to make it a benefit for Valley Children’s Healthcare in Madera, where she was treated.

The fair’s roots are as a concert in Creekwood Park by Johansen High musicians in 2012, said the school’s instrumental music teacher, Brad Hart. After the stabbing death of Johansen grad Tylor Crippen in the park in January 2013, the event was revamped by the music program into a broader fair to reach out to the community to “enjoy the park and enjoy each other,” Hart said.

The fair has continued to broaden its scope and last year partnered with Hughes Elementary, which is part of the Empire Union School District. It is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the school campus, 512 N. McClure Road. The free event will include games and other kids activities, community resource booths, vendors and food trucks. Members of Johansen’s performing-arts program will provide entertainment. The high school’s volleyball team will give a demonstration. The Stanislaus County Police Activities League will offer a soccer clinic. Law enforcement and other public-safety personnel will visit.

Money raised from vendor fees, food sales, raffles and donations will go to Johansen performing arts and to Valley Children’s Healthcare as a celebration of Zoya being cancer free for three years now.

Her illness developed when she was about to start preschool. Whitney Hafiz noticed swelling in her daughter’s neck and initially thought it was tonsillitis, which is common on her husband’s side of the family. But that symptom quickly was joined by pain and stiffness in Zoya’s legs when she’d get out of her stroller, and a limp while walking.

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Zoya Hafiz is pictured in October 2014, just months after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma and beginning treatment. Hafiz family/Creekwood Community Fair

Trips to emergency rooms resulted in no diagnosis, Hafiz said. Then Zoya’s pediatrician did what other doctors did not — an examination of her abdomen, Hafiz said. He felt a large lump and ordered a sonogram.

When he got the results, he called Hafiz and her husband, Abdul, to say he wanted Zoya taken to Valley Children’s. She was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, which the Madera hospital’s website says is a cancerous tumor that grows in nerve tissue of babies and young children.

“It’s is the most common cancer in babies under age 1, “ says a page on the Valley Children’s site. “It’s rare in children older than age 10.”

The tumor in Zoya’s abdomen was 12.5 centimeters — or nearly 5 inches — in diameter, her mother said. The surgery to remove it took six and a half hours.

Initially, there was fear that the tumor had crushed one of Zoya’s kidneys and grown into her liver, Hafiz said. But the kidney was saved and it turned out the tumor wasn’t stuck to the liver much at all, she said. But the neuroblastoma was in Zoya’s bone marrow, so stem cell transplants had to be done.

The little girl’s illness and treatment left her sore, weak and bald. The last part didn’t trouble her a bit, apparently. Her mom said Zoya sometimes would smile broadly while sweeping her hand over her scalp and proclaim, “No hair, don’t care!”

What did bother her a lot, Zoya said, was when the tape protecting her catheter incision had to be changed. She had a Broviac central venous line inserted beneath her skin on the chest wall and into a large vein. The lines are used in children and teens who need IV therapy for a long time.

The skin under the tape was tender, Hafiz said, and Zoya dreaded each time she had to endure the Broviac wound care. A much better memory for Zoya and those who love her is from January 2016, when she was declared NED — no evidence of disease.

She’s remained that way since, according to all the scans and blood and urine tests Zoya has regularly undergone. Beyond the little catheter scar her mom pointed out on her daughter’s chest, there’s not even a shadow of sickness in the little girl who beamed and literally danced in place as her mother and principal talked about her Tuesday.

Neuroblastoma can cause memory and learning problems, Hamera said, and though Zoya experienced some developmental delay and by her current age should be in third grade, she’s catching up.

Hafiz agreed. “That hospital was wonderful ... and look — she’s good now!”

Zoya’s victory is what prompted Hamera to suggest the Creekwood Community Fair aim to raise some money for the Madera hospital. A portion of the proceeds will go to the oncology program and one of its services to patients’ families staying in the area during treatment: a food cupboard that provides things like cereal, milk, peanut butter, jelly, bread and microwaveable meals.

“We’ve always wanted to make this about the community,” Hart said of the Creekwood Community Fair. “As a band, we don’t want to make it about us making money. The primary focus is getting into the community and connecting.

“Early on, we wanted to pick a charity that is important, that has connections to the community and the schools. Principal Hamera mentioned that Zoya was cancer free and that Valley Children’s was instrumental. ... “It’s gonna be a great time and we hope lots of people turn out.”