This is the story of a close-knit family that dealt with and overcame childhood cancer not once, but twice. Pepe and his aunt Heather were each diagnosed with cancer and treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The comfort of being treated in the same place helped them, and their family, tackle their illnesses and treatment with peace of mind.
In February 2017, at 17 years old, Heather was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. “I was just a regular 17-year-old. And then instantly when I heard it, I didn’t know what to think. I was shocked to hear those words…You have cancer.” Throughout her treatment Heather relied on her mom for support. “I’ve always clung on to my mom...she was always there. She really is a Rockstar…I could not have done it without her. Anything I ever needed, she made it happen.”
Heather’s mom, Sonia, in turn relied on the support from the staff at St. Jude. “The first time I stepped foot in the hospital...a nurse was waiting for me. She hugged me and told me everything will be OK. If you don’t understand something, they explain it to you,” says Sonia. “If you need an interpreter, they call someone. I mean, God and St. Jude Hospital, it’s incredible what they do.”
Heather said her experience at St. Jude inspired her own goals and aspirations. “Everyone was so good, explaining what my diagnosis is and what they’re doing. They have child life specialists, and throw events, proms, graduation and parties to make the kids feel normal. I think that’s what I want to do. I love children and I’d want to make them feel comfortable, like my child life specialist made me feel. Everything in life happens for a reason, and I feel like St. Jude showed me what I was meant to do in life. I can’t thank them enough.”
Two weeks before Heather’s first anniversary of being cancer free, her 6-month-old nephew Pepe was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor. When Pepe’s mother, Tiffany, told his grandmother Sonia that Pepe had a tumor, Sonia thought, “No, it can’t be.” Sonia left work and went to the hospital with Tiffany and Pepe. The doctor confirmed that Pepe had a tumor, and that he would be transferred to St. Jude. That is when Sonia told Tiffany, “Don’t worry, he’s in the best hands. Nothing bad will happen to him.”
“When I first found out, I thought my world was coming down,” shared Tiffany. “Just knowing that [Heather] came out good, [she] came out beating it, that was a good relief for me, knowing that. And the doctor just made it feel even better.”
Tiffany found strength in support from her family as Pepe started treatment at St. Jude when he was just 6 months old. “For Pepe, that’s all he ever knew. It was all normal to him. He did not know anything else. His playground was the hallways of St. Jude. When Pepe smiled, I saw the better side, you didn’t always have to be sad, you didn’t always have to be scared because he showed us his strength, ”said Tiffany.
Pepe’s grandmother spoke about his courage and optimism during his treatment at St. Jude. “Pepe always smiled,” said Sonia, “We could all be sad, but his smile would cheer us up...we knew that he was going to be OK. If St. Jude did not exist, the truth is I don’t know what would have become of my family. My heart is at St. Jude.”
Heather and her nephew shared a bond, not just as family members, but as cancer patients. “St. Jude, they really are like a second home. Me and Pepe, we would go to appointments together, we would support each other and walk down the halls...I just cannot wait for him to get older, to understand what he’s been through. Him just going through it without telling people how he feels, I feel like he is way stronger than I am.”
“I’m happy to know that he gets another chance after being sick,” shared Tiffany. “He says he wants to be a police officer. I love that, that we get a second chance.”
“As a mother,” Sonia said, “I am very happy to still have both of [them] and to celebrate Heather and Pepe’s life. We are more united than ever before.”
“Family means a lot more than just what is in a book,” Heather added. “At the end of the day, it just made us twice as thankful for everything that we have now. We are so blessed, and I think that is why I get so teared up because I could not imagine any other place doing this for us. St. Jude makes sure that not only you or the person going through cancer is OK, but that the whole family is OK.”
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Its purpose is clear: Finding cures. Saving children.®
As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children, treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since the hospital opened more than 50 years ago. And St. Jude won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.
By freely sharing discoveries, every child saved at St. Jude means doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save thousands more children. Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food-because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.
To learn how you can help St. Jude families like Heather and Pepe, visit stjude.org/family.
And make sure you visit St. Jude Inspire to discover more powerful St. Jude stories of hope, strength, love and kindness. You can also follow St. Jude on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, and subscribe to its YouTube channel.