Heath: What kind of cancer do you (or did you) have. How old were you when you were diagnosed and how old are you now? Where are you from and what hospital were you treated at?
Stage IV Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Large B Cell. I was diagnosed at age 15, about a month and a half before my 16th birthday.
I'm from Montebello, California. A city just East of Downtown LA. I went to Children's Hospital LA (CHLA). Treated up in 4 West.
I'm 35 now.
Harry: What feelings did you have when you were diagnosed with cancer? Were you scared, sad, angry? Did you want to talk to people about how you were feeling or did you want to keep it inside?
I was in shock. I wanted to trust God and I wanted to convince everyone I was full of faith and didn't doubt at all, but I was terrified. I was 100% certain I was going to die, so I just wanted to make sure that people didn't worry about me and that my friends knew I loved them. I was a teenager and expressing feelings to family always seems tricky in the moment. Though my parents were always there for me, I confided in my friends. My dad always tried to stay positive that it would all work out no matter the state of the news. He'd bring me cheeseburgers every day in hopes that I'd eat, even if I told him he was too sick. That's just the kind of guy he is. My mom was amazing. She focused on my health and comfort, but as far as expressing my mental/emotional place, I had one friend that I really felt comfortable dreaming with and hoping with. His name is Mike and still to this day we're close friends. My kids call him "Uncle Mikey."
Heath: What was it like to go back to school after you were diagnosed or had treatment (or both)? Did your friends and teachers treat you differently? How did that make you feel?
So I went back to school the same day I was diagnosed. It was my dad's birthday and he was in shock and I knew it would've been miserable at home, so I wanted to be with my friends. It was so dramatic. It was lunchtime when I got there so my friends were in the quad and life was carefree, then I showed up and the second I looked at my friend Mike, I just lost it. And then before I knew it, there were like 100 people all surrounding me, we were all in tears...it was SO high school. Lol. I was able to convince the teachers to not make me be home schooled so I still attended class when I was up to it. Really, it was just an opportunity for me to be around friends. My friends treated me like one of them, I'll always love them for that. I was the only kid allowed to wear a hat at school, so that was kinda cool too. My teachers were mostly compassionate and encouraging. There were some that treated me like I was dead man walking or had pity on me. I hated that. Don't pity me, because I'm going to come back stronger than ever. That was always my mentality.
Heath: What does it feel like when you are going through chemo?
You know those sleepless nights where you're uncomfortable and no matter which position you lie in you can't get comfortable? That. Perpetually. For months. 2-3 days after chemo, you're just lethargic. You're nauseous. It's weird, you know you have to eat, but you're also terrified of throwing up. I remember times where I was wondering if I was eventually going to throw up my whole stomach. I used to get infections, too. Mucicitis is one of the most common ones...it would feel like someone shrink wrapped the inside of my mouth. Like, if I were to open my mouth, the sides of my mouth were gonna tear. And then there were infections I got where it was excruciating to swallow...ugh, that was awful. The spinal taps hurt a lot, but more than the pain was the fear that needles were going in your back. I had so much anxiety from that. Losing your hair was devastating at first. And then it didn't bother me until people would stare or make "did you lose a bet?" comments. That was lame.
Harry: How did your family, friends and community help you through this difficult time?
It was an interesting time because it was 1999. No WiFi or cell phones, really. I had a pager and my friends would hit me up on there. We had our own alphabet that we made out of numbers that's how we "texted" (For instance, "Hi Harry" would be (41*4612124 <---- lol, gosh I'm old). My friends were good at treating me normal and letting me just be a kid. My mom made sure the house was safe for me. She made people wear gloves and a mask when they came in so I didn't get sick. Family members would buy me magazines or games to help keep me company. One time, my friends made this huge banner that sad "Get Well Soon Manny, We Love You" and it was signed by a bunch of people, that was a really special surprise when I got to school.
Harry: What is one thing that you would want people to know about having cancer?
It's hard to explain...you're not less than when you're sick. In so many ways. Less than others and less than your previous self. You're still you. All your hopes, dreams, joys, hobbies are all the same. We never try to let our circumstances diminish our identity. So if we're out there trying to be "normal" it's because so much normality has been taken away.
Both: What are your hobbies and favorite foods and places to go?
Being a Mexican American from LA, I meet a lot of those stereotypes. Lol! I'm not outdoorsy and I think romanticizing sleeping on the ground is silly. I love sports...like LOVE sports. Basketball was a huge motivating factor for me when I was sick. That was my goal, to come back and play sports again. Huge Lakers and Dodgers fan. I go to Vegas every summer for NBA Summer League to watch the new rookies play. I'm also addicted to Nike. I didn't have expensive shoes growing up. I had some friends that always had the latest Jordans and whatever hot kicks Nike was coming up with, so now that I'm older, about once every 6 months, I get myself some new shoes...it's a disease of mine.
As for food, I love pizza. It's a weakness. There's this pizza joint in Montebello called Rio's Pizza, I used to go there after football games in high school...every now and again, I just want to go back and grab a slice.
My business and the charity take up a lot of my time. I also coach my son's sports teams (baseball, basketball, football), so there's not much room for "me" time. I'm awful at video games, I play Battlefield 1 and NBA 2K...terrible at both! Most of my evenings, I'm hanging with Catrina, watching reruns of The Office.
Both: Why is giving back so important to you? Who inspires you?
Giving back is honestly my only choice at this point. It's a part of who I am and it's the only thing that I feel makes what I went through make sense. It's the only time I truly feel like I'm living my purpose. Gamerosity is the manifestation of years of wondering why it all happened to me. You go through something like cancer, you can NEVER be the same again. You can try, but you're lying to yourself. You can't sit there and find out other kids are going through what you're going through and not be moved to compassion. I don't see how others go through their lives not making sure other kids don't hurt the same way you did. You HAVE to redeem the darkness and turn it into light. I know I'm nothing special and barely even talented, but what I do have is passion and I promised myself that I'd never use my passion to self-benefit...that I'd use it to advocate for others. I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life because I chose to make my life an offering to these children and it's been the greatest blessing of my life.
I have big, BIG plans and goals for the charity...plans that are monumentally bigger than my abilities...which is great, because it means that I get to meet individuals that are vastly more talented than I am and more compassionate than I am to help execute these plans. The more I need others, the greater reach we can have.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Manny! Please visit Executive Director, Manny Munoz at Gamerosity, to follow and support his journey of giving.