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November 30, 2010 > Celebrating the strength of family

Celebrating the strength of family

By Jessica Noel Waymire

Richard Gonzalez has a special reason to be thankful this holiday season-his youngest granddaughter, Sophia-Marie, is cancer free. For the Gonzalez family, this year has been filled with tears, prayers, waiting, and hope. Richard has found a special way to share his gratitude with the community and invites everyone to join him in giving thanks and raising awareness.

It was shortly after Sophia's third birthday that her mother, Selena Rodriguez, noticed something wrong with Sophia's left eye. Mother's intuition led her to make an appointment with Sophia's pediatrician. Selena pushed for an examination by an eye specialist and her worries were confirmed: Sophia had a tumor growing on her left retina.

On April 7, 2010, Sophia was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called retinoblastoma. This disease generally occurs in children under age six; a tumor forms on the retina causing loss of vision in the affected eye. The symptoms can include redness, swelling, and a white reflection when light is shone into the eye (similar to that seen in flash photographs). Parents are often the first to recognize the symptoms in their child. If left untreated, the cancer could spread to the other eye or, worse, to the brain. Thankfully, this form of cancer is highly treatable.

Dr. Linn Murphree at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles treated Sophia. The first step involved extensive testing, photographing the tumor, and an MRI to confirm that the cancer had not spread to the right eye. Once it was clear that only the left eye was affected, Sophia's parents had to choose what type of treatment would be best for their little girl. Two of the three available options were different forms of chemotherapy, each with only a 30 percent effectiveness rate. They settled on the third option, enucleation, which involved removing the cancerous eye and replacing it with a prosthetic.

Sophia has since received a prosthetic eye and been declared cancer-free. "Boo-boo," as the family calls Sophia, is a happy, energetic little girl who loves ballet, singing, and dancing with her grandfather whenever Dancing with the Stars is on television. "Paw," Sophia's nickname for her grandfather, says that the cancer and surgery have not slowed her down. "If anything, she has more energy now than she did before," said Richard.

Inspired by Christmas in the Park, the annual holiday celebration held in downtown San Jose, Richard has been collecting animated pieces and displaying them at his home for 17 years. This year's display includes a special piece dedicated to Sophia. Richard calls it, "The Tree of Love, Strength, Laughter, and Family." Forest animals pop out of the tree and dance around when viewers stand in front of the piece.

Richard's holiday collection includes many unique pieces. Visitors will recognize the Grinch as well as a very impressive Santa Claus. Friends and family pitched in to help Richard assemble the display, and family friend Leigh Dillion was especially helpful with animation of the pieces. Richard's wife Karen, son Chris, and brother-in-law Keith Maldonado assisted with building of the display cases.

The Gonzalez family holiday display brings Christmas in the Park to Fremont. It will be open to visitors in the evenings throughout December. Bring your family over to share in this celebration of life and hope!

If you would like to offer a donation in support of Sophia and retinoblastoma awareness, the family will accept donations. Richard suggests that donations can also be made to the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

Gonzalez Family Holiday Display
Saturday, December 4 to Saturday, January 1
6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
38643 Glencoe Dr., Fremont
Free; donations accepted

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