If there was ever a comeback kid, it’s 12-year-old Jeyliana “Nana” Gonzalez.
Her rare cancer—a malignant rhabdoid tumor—officially went into remission this spring. This milestone is good news, but the story of how she reached it is one with many twists and turns.
Nana and her mother, Julissa Gonzalez, look back at the series of events surrounding Nana’s puzzling illness with deep gratitude—to God and all those who helped along the way. Their faith runs deep, and both say that’s what gives them strength and hope when things are at their worst.
"Yes, it was scary and yes, we did cry,” said Julissa. “But every time we cried, Nana made sure that we still praised God, read the Bible, and had faith.”
A Rare and Challenging Diagnosis - from Day One
Nana’s cancer journey began in January 2022 when she felt a hard, marble-like bump on her lower abdomen. Doctors suspected it was an enlarged lymph node caused by an infection, but by March, the bump had grown to the size of a quarter and quickly grew to the size of a golf ball. By the time she had surgery, it was as big as a tennis ball.
Her diagnosis proved difficult from the beginning. A series of tests, including a biopsy, confirmed that she had cancer and that it had spread to her lungs. She was minutes away from starting chemotherapy when the phone rang with new information from her biopsy.
It was good news: Her cancer appeared to be a germ cell tumor, which had a much better prognosis than that of her first diagnosis. Doctors were encouraged, since germ cell tumors (similar to the type of cancer athlete Lance Armstrong had) typically have better outcomes. Nana underwent chemotherapy and responded well. All of her tumors shrunk, and it seemed like the worst was over.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. A scan the next month showed that the cancer in Nana’s lungs had returned. She went into the operating room for a lung biopsy, which led to her final diagnosis of a malignant rhabdoid tumor, a very rare, aggressive cancer that typically affects young children, usually in the brain and abdomen, making Nana’s case unique.
The news was devastating, according to oncologist David Korones, MD. “Part of what made this particularly difficult was that we had already fallen in love with Nana and her mother,” said Korones. “They were under our skin in the most wonderful way, so to potentially break their hearts when they thought they were done with the disease was hard.”
A Family with ‘Infectious Optimism’
As with everything else, Nana faced the new chapter without showing fear or doubt that she would make it through. Both she and her mom took the news with the same bold resilience. They trusted their doctors and again found strength in their faith. Korones calls their optimism “infectious.”
“To be able to meet such remarkable people and walk with them on a perilous walk, and see her emerge, keeps us going,” said Korones. “I think they’ve given us as much as we’ve given them, if not more.”
Now facing the most intense part of her treatment, Nana underwent more chemo, followed by a stem cell transplant and radiation. While Nana won’t be considered cancer-free for another five years, she is in remission and has already made an impact on those around her.
During their Zoom interview for this story, Nana and her mother sat together on their sofa, finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes poking fun at each other. They start and end their days together: Julissa is a staff social worker at the bilingual charter school Nana attends. Getting through this year made their relationship even stronger.
“The bond that she and Julissa have is just incredible,” said John Mariano, MD, Nana’s oncologist and a pediatric hematology/oncology fellow at Golisano Children’s Hospital. He says doctors and nurses recognize Nana and mom as the family who often came to appointments in matching outfits.
Their TikTok videos also show Nana and Julissa’s sense of humor. One video, taken during their recent visit to Philadelphia, showed Nana running up the Rocky steps in boxing gloves, illustrating her fight with cancer.
Facing the Unknown with Positivity, Humor, and Love
Mariano remembers the only time he saw Nana cry: One day, a nurse noticed Nana’s tears and asked what was wrong. Nana replied that she saw other kids who were sick, and said she was sad that any kid would have cancer.
Another time, during Nana’s second round of chemo, Mariano went to see her perform a group dance with her friends in front of a live crowd during Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I can’t think of a more visual representation of her just absolutely refusing to let the treatment change her or what she would do,” said Mariano. “At that point, the last thing most patients would want to do is get out of bed.”
Cancer treatment is unpleasant for anyone, but Nana found ways to take her mind off it. Her spark and spunk never diminished. She still teases Mariano for losing to her in Mario Kart (“three times,” she points out).
Thanks to supportive family and friends from her church, she ate many homemade meals in her hospital room. Pork ribs, rice, tostones, and her grandmother’s famous flan made it feel more like home. It was hard, but Julissa says the support her family found—and Nana’s own strength—helped her take one day at a time.
“She is a very tough kid. From the beginning everyone saw that she’s a big person in that small little body,” said Julissa. “We try our best to concentrate on the positive, not the negative.”
Doctors continue to keep an eye on Nana as she returns for regular checkups. They can’t say for sure what the future holds but, as surgeon Derek Wakeman, MD, says, the team is spurred on by the family’s extraordinary courage.
“I’ve learned from them and I’m not the same person (in a good way) from having interacted with them,” said Wakeman. “Despite everything, they just maintain a great attitude and they’re not willing to give up—nor should they.”