Franchesca Santos, the Survivor

It was usually a Tuesday or Wednesday morning when Franchesca Santos would receive her check up to make sure it was okay to proceed with the treatment. Then came a numbing cream, an orange liquid and doctor’s needles connecting her head to a bag from 9 to 5.

When Santos was 8 years old, she was diagnosed with Optic Glioma at St. Joseph’s Hospital after what was thought to be lazy eye was checked again under the optometrist’s order.

“When I got diagnosed, I saw it as a joke,” she said. She did not know the seriousness. She remembers not knowing even what a cancer tumor was until that moment, so she initially couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.

There was once, soon after starting chemotherapy, however, when Santos was scared. She took medicine and threw up for hours. She was allergic to the carbon platinum in the chemotherapy and then to the Benadryl she had taken to counteract it. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. It was the first time she had seen her grandfather cry. “He didn’t want anything to happen to me,” she explained. After that moment of fear though, she was back to her normal self, cracking a joke about how at least they knew she was allergic to something.

Just before she was diagnosed, she had made the trip from Philadelphia, where she lived with her mom, to Tampa to live with her grandparents. Her grandparents took her to the doctor’s office, the cancer center and the hospital during the two-year period of constant treatment. Her mom visited whenever possible and eventually moved to Tampa herself with Santos’s little brother. Now Santos lives with her mom full-time. She is still extremely close with her grandpa.

A woman from the hospital would try her best to catch Santos up on the content she was missing at school. “Everyone at school was nice,” she remembers about her third-grade class. She wore a hat to school to hide the effects of chemotherapy. Her principal would also wear a hat so she wouldn’t feel left out.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation gave her, her uncle and her grandmother a cruise to St. Thomas, St. Martins and the Bahamas.

“The Make-a-Wish foundation only sponsors you if they think you’re going to die,” Santos explained. “It was a lot of fun though.”

She remembers finding an abandoned house on the beach with her grandmother she thought was cool. They swam with dolphins and ate pasta and ice cream. She remembers the cruise being something her grandma chose to do and she went along with it.

Back home, there were darker moments. When she was 9, she had suicidal thoughts. “I wanted to kill myself and I blamed it on my mom,” she said. “I would yell at her, ‘You made me sign the papers.’” She is referring to the papers that she had to sign to participate in chemotherapy. The cancer center helped her out of that, letting her forget that she was different from her classmates for a little bit. There, she played video games and took trips with other children who had cancer as well. They never talked about having cancer.

Even now, five years later, she must go to the doctor every six months to make sure the tumor hasn’t grown again. “That always makes me nervous because if they find that it has grown, I’ll have to do something worse than chemotherapy.” What she’s referring to is radiology, another form of cancer treatment that involves high doses of energy to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Her grandfather’s neck was seared permanently black after radiology to treat throat cancer. “It’s basically a terrible suntan,” she explained. She doesn’t want that to happen to her face.

Despite that fear, Santos makes the best of it. She was able to get back into the proper grade after missing so much school by taking extra five-hour classes over the two months of summer between seventh and eighth grade. She was hesitant at first because she had to miss a family trip but her grandmother pushed her to do it and she doesn’t regret it.

Outside, at the flagpole afterschool, Santos folds the American flag for the first time. She’s in JROTC. She laughs when she realizes she did it wrong and has to do it again. She maintains a positive attitude in everything she does and associates it with her being able to cope with the rough two years of her life. “I think it’s important,” she said. “If I wasn’t optimistic, I would have given up and probably would have never made it through.”