On his 16th birthday in December 2019, Luis got in the shower to get ready for his day to celebrate. When he stepped out of the shower his whole world fell apart. He was immediately short of breath and thought he was having one of his asthma attacks, but when he started vomiting he knew something much worse was happening.

His mother, Melissa, took him to the hospital where tests showed a mass on his heart the size of a cantaloupe. When they learned the diagnosis was a rare heart and lung cancer called Thymic Neoplasm, Melissa said she froze in a panic.

“I am a single mother with no mother and father to help, so it’s just me and Luis, and I had no idea how I would get through this,” Melissa recalled. “My whole world just crashed. I was already working double shifts at my customer service job at a butcher, but I still struggled to pay my bills. No matter what, I knew I had to quit my job to be with Luis through it all.”

By the time she met with the hospital social worker weeks later, she was afraid Luis would not have a home to come to as her landlord was about to evict them from their apartment in the Bronx. The hospital social worker referred Melissa to Friends of Karen, and after completing the intake process, she was paired with Friends of Karen social worker Rhonda.

“It was a blessing to meet Rhonda and she jumped right in,” Melissa said. “She got me financial help to pay my back rent and Friends of Karen assisted to help me keep up with the payments. That was the only way I could be with Luis throughout his treatment, and to make sure he was getting enough sleep and eating enough to stay strong.”

Melissa shared that it was not easy to accept help as she had been on her own and taking care of herself since she was 16. She is glad Rhonda was there to help her cope with the stress and help her understand Luis’ medical conditions and treatment options. She is grateful that Friends of Karen provided food assistance, including ensuring they could buy food for a nice Thanksgiving meal, and that they made sure Luis had a comfortable new daybed to recuperate in after treatments.

To date, Luis has endured treatment that has included surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, and radiation. He lost several critical months when COVID-19 interrupted his access to the hospital after treatment ended in early 2020. By the time he could safely go back to the hospital for checkups the cancer had spread to his lungs. The doctors found seven new tumors, so he continues to receive chemotherapy in the hope of keeping him stable.

While Luis’ illness has left him with multiple challenges due to treatment, he and Melissa are living by her motto to never stop fighting and keep pushing forward and harder. Luis is looking forward to his senior year of high school. Despite a pandemic and Luis’ cancer, Melissa is celebrating graduating with an associate’s degree that is her first step towards helping others through a career in the healthcare field.