When picturing a five-year-old child, one might see a young child learning the ABCs, learning how to count to 20, running and playing with other children, and getting their first taste of elementary school as they enter kindergarten. This was the life of five-year-old Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Teniya Salazar, until one night in September of 2011.
She was feeling ill, experiencing the most severe stomachache that she had ever had in her young life. Her parents, Abel Salazar and Predencia Watson, were told by doctors that Teniya had developed a liver sarcoma. Soft tissue had formed on her liver and developed into a cancerous tumor. The shock of the diagnosis and immediate treatment put on hold all the things every five-year-old gets to experience and enjoy.
“It was a normal day. Her aunt picked her up and took her to her mom’s, and she started experiencing a bad stomachache to where she couldn’t sleep,” said Salazar, remembering how they found out about the cancer. “She was taken to the emergency room. The doctors there did an ultrasound and they noticed something on her liver. They didn’t know what it was, so they admitted her for testing and did a biopsy. They found out there was a cancerous tumor on the side of her liver.”
Immediately after the diagnosis, Teniya had nine weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. In December of 2011, she had surgery to remove the growth. About 65 percent of her liver had to be removed to make sure they removed all the tumor and remaining cancerous cells. She could afford to have so much of her liver removed because the liver is the only organ that regenerates in the body. When you remove part of it, it will grow back. It took three months for Teniya’s liver to regenerate to its normal size.
“She is our only daughter; we were pretty devastated,” said Salazar. “The cancer she got was really rare; the doctors said there are less than 100 cases a year for this particular type. She was like the fourth or fifth [child] in Arizona who has ever had that type of cancer. The mortality rate was about 55 percent, and we didn’t really know if she was going to make it. It was really scary.”
Doctors could not give Teniya’s parents a clear answer to why she developed the cancer. Salazar didn’t know if it could be genetic or not, but he explained that he too had a tumor when he was a young child, and he also had a brother who died of leukemia. This cancer is more common in New Zealand, and her doctors had to consult research from there to treat Teniya.
After her surgery, Teniya started another round of chemotherapy for nine weeks.
“That hit her pretty hard. She had a seizure during her first chemo session after her surgery. I was the only one there; it was hard to go through,” said Salazar. “She also got a medical port installed in her chest, a tube connected to her heart as an IV. It made things difficult as far as going to the restroom, taking showers or moving around. The chemo affected her strength; she lost a lot of weight. She was about 70 pounds [before], and she lost about 20 pounds after [treatment]. She lost her hair, and she was really sensitive to sounds and smells. We were in the hospital a lot. We would bring our lunch into her room and she would almost vomit just smelling the food; it would be too intense for her. The sounds too; if we were talking too loud or laughing, she would get really irritated.”
Every time Teniya completed a chemo session, for 10 days afterward her parents would have to give her shots to help her immune system. She was constantly getting poked with needles.
Teniya finished her chemo in May 2012. She has to have checkups and follow-up scans for the next five years. In May 2017 she will have completed everything, and if there is no trace of cancer, she will be considered cured.
Teniya was one month into kindergarten when she was diagnosed with cancer; she basically missed the whole year of kindergarten. Tutoring really helped.
“We met with Mrs. Bradley, the principal back then at Salt River Elementary School. She was able to work with us and get home tutoring for Teniya,” said Salazar. “There were tutors in the hospital as well. When it came time for first grade, [Salt River Elementary School] told us her test scores weren’t good enough to go on to the first grade and she would have to repeat kindergarten.
The hospital had to do a cognitive test, because the chemo can affect the brain and memory. So they did a more in-depth test that included scholastic areas but mostly tested her memory, reaction time and everything with the brain.”
Teniya tested at both first-grade and second-grade levels. Her parents took the test results to the elementary school, and she was able to move on to the first grade with the rest of her class.
Dreams Do Come True
While Teniya was in the hospital, the staff suggested her family apply for any assistance that would help them during their difficult time. One of the programs they applied to was Make-a-Wish Arizona, asking that Teniya and her family have a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
“We didn’t think anything of it [afterward],” said Salazar. “But then we were contacted and informed that her wish would come true.”
After meeting with a Make-a-Wish representative, the family chose the foundation’s Disney World package of seven days, six nights, all expenses paid for four people to Orlando.
“They provided everything, even per diem for us,” said Salazar. “We stayed at a place called Give Kids the World, a private resort for kids.”
Give Kids the World Village is a 70-acre storybook resort where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to a weeklong free fantasy vacation.
“In the morning you can go get breakfast in the gingerbread house,” said Teniya. “We saw the Minions, Shrek and Mickey [Mouse]—it was really cool!”
The family enjoyed three days at Disney World, two days at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, and one day at Sea World during their vacation.
“We had on Make-a-Wish buttons and we were given the VIP treatment,” said Salazar. “We were given a private escort straight to the rides; we didn’t have to wait in any lines.” When they see that button, the staff at all the parks go out of their way to make the child’s experience enjoyable, selecting the child for special things here and there, explained Salazar.
While at the Magic Kingdom, Teniya and her family had seats for the Electric Light Parade right in front of the castle. Before the parade, a staff member asked Teniya if she wanted to flip the switch that would turn off all the park lights so the parade could start.
“I got to turn off the light for the parade to start at Disney World,” said Teniya.
“She turned the switch off, the whole park went dark and all the floats covered in lights came down the street,” said Salazar. “Things like that made it a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We would never be able to take a vacation like that again.”
Even before they left for the airport, Teniya’s experience was amazing. The family was picked up in a Ford Excursion limo and driven to the airport. There they met Make-a-Wish volunteers and a Southwest Airlines representative who gave the family a private escort through the airport and even gave Teniya a tour of an empty airplane.
“I got to see the front of the airplane and sit where the pilots sit,” said Teniya. “This was my first time flying, and I wasn’t scared of flying.”
“I wanted to go to Disney World because I like princesses. My favorite princess is Princess Jasmine,” said Teniya. “My favorite parts of the whole trip were feeding the dolphins and petting them and sitting in front of the Shamu show. We got splashed and the water was cold and salty.”
She also liked going on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios and walking through the Harry Potter area. She was picked to get a wand; she and her family were taken to a little shop where a wizard tested out wands to pick the perfect wand for her. She and her father both experienced the beach for the first time when they visited Cocoa Beach.
To end the trip right, Salazar proposed to her mom as they were leaving Universal Studios, which made Teniya very happy.
Thanks for the Support
Teniya’s extended family have been very supportive. One person who has been a really big help is her aunt Karina Watson. The family asked her to be their fourth person to go along with them to Florida. Teniya’s grandma and her aunt’s boyfriend also went on the trip, both paying their own way.
“Karina has been a really big help. Our immediate family was really there, and our [jobs] worked with us as far as [taking time off], and they worked with us big time,” said Salazar. “The tribe actually helped us too; we were able to take money out of her trust fund through the catastrophic health [provision], due to having to miss a lot of work. David Montiel from the Smoke Shop gave us a donation. [We’d also like to thank] everyone at Cardon Children’s Hospital. That was an amazing hospital. She got so spoiled, but that’s what they are there for.”
The family would like to thank Teniya’s doctors and all the medical staff, family and friends who helped them out, and everyone who sent their prayers.
“Her just being strong was a big plus,” said Salazar. “If it was me at her age, going through all the surgery and needles, I would have been terrified. But she was so strong. If she wasn’t so strong, I and her mom wouldn’t have been able to stay as strong as she was.”