Josh Saenz doesn’t make excuses. He didn’t when he was 36 pounds
underweight, bald and bedridden. He doesn’t now. His battle with
leukemia has made him tough.
Josh Saenz doesn’t make excuses. He didn’t when he was 36 pounds underweight, bald and bedridden. He doesn’t now. His battle with leukemia has made him tough.
Four years ago, at 11 years old, Josh got the news. Now 15, the oldest sibling of five is in remission and wrapping up a successful sophomore year at the most rigorous high school program in town.
PINNING DOWN A PROGNOSIS
Preceded by weeks of nausea, chronic headaches and dizziness, and numerous doctor visits with no verdict, learning the truth about their son’s illness was almost a relief, Josh’s parents said.
Doctor suggestions that their son had acid reflux, mono or an ulcer just didn’t make sense, said Chris Saenz, Josh’s father.
“I didn’t want to be that guy that throws out scary words but, ‘Has anyone checked for cancer?’ I asked,” Chris said.
“Oh no, it’s not that,” he remembered doctors initially saying.
Finally, he took his son to the emergency room at Saint Louise Regional Hospital, where the head nurse told him that Josh’s condition was beyond the scope of that hospital and directed them to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto.
“That’s when I got nervous,” Chris said. “At that point, the doctor didn’t need to tell me. I knew what he was going to say. I knew it was cancer.”
Seven weeks of wondering finally ended with the news no family is ever prepared to hear about their 11-year-old son. But a definitive answer allowed the family to move forward with purpose.
Two days later, Josh started chemotherapy. After 12 days, he was able to go home. But the treatment had weakened his immune system so severely that a common fungus worked its way into his lungs and traveled to his brain. What appeared to be a fever at first turned out to be a fungal infection that had descended on the language center of Josh’s brain. Two brain surgeries to remove the infection temporarily halted Josh’s chemotherapy treatment and left him with a quarter-sized hole in his skull. His thick, dark hair hides the two-inch-long scar left behind.
“Now, I sometimes just can’t remember the words,” Josh said, an exasperated expression blanketing his usually smiling, freckled face. “I’ve got them, I just can’t get them out. Some people say they don’t even notice, but it sure doesn’t feel right.”
LOOKING FOR A CHALLENGE
A voracious student who’s quick to hold open a door or lend a helping hand but reticent to ask for help himself, Josh stands out in his teachers’ minds as a student who takes pride in his work and responsibility for his mistakes.
“What I’m so totally impressed about is that he hasn’t used what happened to him as an excuse,” said Sam Navarez, a teacher at the Dr. T.J. Owens Gilroy Early College Academy, where Josh is in his second year. “I admire that in him.”
School had always come easily to Josh. Although the cancer may have slowed him down physically, Josh finished off his middle school curriculum with ease. During his extended stay at Lucile Packard, he plowed through his lessons with the help of an in-hospital teacher. He returned to Brownell Middle School about halfway through his seventh grade year and, still weak from his treatment, managed to get to class by holding onto the walls for support.
“He did a good job,” said Sheri Saenz, Josh’s mother. “He didn’t give up. He didn’t feel sorry for himself at any point. He worked through it.”
Bored with class work that didn’t challenge him in middle school, Josh enrolled at the Early College Academy for “that extra edge,” he said, and because the program allows high school seniors to graduate with two years of college credit already under their belts.
Although the leukemia comes up in passing conversation, it’s usually quickly brushed aside, his teachers said.
“He didn’t seem to make a big deal of it,” said James Corcoran, a history teacher at Dr. T.J. Owens. “He never seems to dwell on it.”
After graduation, Josh hopes to turn his passion for tinkering on his Dell laptop into a full-fledged career in computer programming. During what sometimes seemed like endless days in the hospital, his laptop was his constant companion, a fixture in many of the photos the family has of the time.
“I just love computers,” he said, a smile lighting up his face when the conversation turned to his career goals. “I’m hooked.”
With the slow, measured speech that is a result of the infection’s attack on his language center, Josh explained how an Old Testament psalm helped him battle his ailments.
“At some points I was scared,” he said. “So I prayed. I memorized one scripture and I would just pray when I thought it would comfort me.”
It had been a while since the words last passed Josh’s lips, but they came back easily.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” he said, reciting Psalm 23. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The family’s faith and the support of their friends and of the congregation at New Hope Community Church lessened the successive blows dealt by first the cancer and chemotherapy, then the brain infection and subsequent surgeries.
“The Lord doesn’t give you something you can’t handle,” Chris said.
New Hope Lead Pastor Malcolm MacPhail immediately felt a connection with the Saenz family when they told him Josh had cancer. A leukemia survivor himself, MacPhail fought off the disease in 2001 after a successful bone marrow transplant.
“I’ve known Josh since he was a little boy,” MacPhail said. “When he was diagnosed, it really hit hard for me. But every time I went to visit him, he was positive, trusting in God and trusting in his doctors.”
The constant prayers and presence of his parents, four siblings and extended family kept him smiling, Josh said.
Visitors came and left Josh’s hospital room but his father spent every night with his son in the hospital, stretched out on a makeshift bed. When morning came, he switched with his wife, who raced up to Palo Alto after dropping off Josh’s brothers and sisters at school, racking up more than one speeding ticket as a result.
“I had to get up there because I didn’t want him to be alone,” Sheri said.
JUST A TYPICAL TEEN
Though he’s conquered demons many will never have to face, Josh is a typical teenage boy in many ways. His mother scolds him for his chronically cluttered room. He playfully bickers with his oldest sister. And he takes even the most mundane task as an opportunity to gross out his parents.
In addition to the cocktail of anti-fungal and anti-nausea medications, steroids to help fortify his weakened immune system, and vitamin supplements Josh keeps organized by using a pill box the size of a small suitcase, he also takes a daily dose of a bright yellow, thick liquid antibiotic.
“It’s pretty gross,” his mother said, wrinkling her nose when her son made a show of pouring a spoonful of the repulsive-looking medicine.
“It doesn’t taste good either,” Josh said, wincing as he gulped it down.
Wearing a bright orange shirt with the text “How to pick up chicks” printed above a silhouette of several male stick figures holding a female stick figure in the air, Josh has a wry sense of humor and a smile that comes easily.
Since a side effects of one of his medications is an increased sensitivity to the sun, he’s prone to chapped and cracked dry skin on his hands and redness on his face. Every morning, Josh applies a coat of 100+ SPF sunscreen when he leaves the house.
“I’ve been enjoying this dreary weather,” he said.
Though his preference for weather may gravitate to the somber side, his outlook on life is anything but.
“He always seems to come with a smile and a friendly greeting,” said Linda Martinez, administrative assistant at Josh’s school. “He never complains and that made me realize that we have nothing to complain about. He touched my heart.”