Stella Serna’s parents want to make as many memories as they can while their daughter is feeling better in between their MRI updates every three months.
SAN ANTONIO — Cindy Venegas and Victor Serna’s lives turned upside down in March of 2021, when doctors found a spinal tumor that led to a brain cancer diagnosis for their then-5-year-old Stella.
Since then, most days are filled with worry and a lot more time together, in addition to many doctor’s appointments.
“The life that we had prior is gone, you almost grieve it,” said Venegas.
That April, doctors at Methodist Children’s Hospital told Stella’s parents they needed to perform a surgical biopsy. At the time, doctors said they likely would not be able to remove any of the tumor.
“We were waiting just hours and hours and then she (the neurosurgeon) came out saying, ‘OK, I was able to remove 80%.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god,'” Vanegas said.
By June, Stella had completed two months of proton radiation treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Now she gets an MRI every three months to monitor her tumor.
At the last two appointments in November and February, Vanegas said, the tumor had grown slightly. But doctors believe it is pseudo progression, which doesn’t necessarily mean significant growth.
For the most part, her parents say Stella is feeling well. They want to take advantage of that by fulfilling her dream of going to Disney World.
“Make-A-Wish did reach out to us, but at the time, they couldn’t fulfill that wish because of COVID,” said Serna.
The family could have been placed on a waitlist, but the organization prioritizes kids who have may have a shorter timeframe.
“I didn’t want to take that away from any other kids that need to go, since she is doing better,” Vanegas said. “I figured we could just get the funds together.”
After finding out about Stella’s diagnosis, Vanegas tried staying at work, but eventually decided it would be best stay home with her daughter.
“I just felt in my heart, I’m like, ‘What am I doing, this is not where I need to be, is it gonna be a financial hardship?’ Yeah, of course, but I need to be with her.”
Vanegas and Serna said they hesitated asking for help, but friends and family encouraged them to. They quickly realized the community really wanted to help, too.
Stella’s Disney GoFundMe page can be found here. They are hoping to make the trip to Disney World in the summer, before Stella’s 7th birthday in August.
Resources and raising awareness
Before childhood cancer hit close to home for their family, they were never really exposed or aware of the devastating realities of it. Venegas recalls seeing commercials on the TV, but turning the channel because it was too heartbreaking to watch.
Now, she and Serna are passionate about raising awareness for the need for more funding for childhood cancer research.
“I just feel like there should be more options, there should be more options than just surgery and radiation,” said Venegas.
Nonprofits such as Gabriella’s Smile Foundation and Fight Like a Kid helped them navigate life after the cancer diagnosis and provide support for the family.
The family also works to spread awareness through the “Stella’s Journey” Facebook page they created. It began as a way to keep family and friends updated, but quickly grew when Vanegas noticed the lack of awareness for childhood cancer.
More ways to get involved
Venegas and Serna encourage people to utilize organizations like Gabriella’s Smiles Foundation to learn more about the work being done in the fight against childhood cancer.
In May, Gabriella’s Smile Foundation is hosting a 5K Cupcake Run to raise money for pediatric brain cancer during the month of May.
You can learn more and join #TeamStella here.