Thursday, November 12, 2009

Noreen Zuñiga's Thanksgiving by Lori Rasmussen

When Noreen Zuñiga’s son Daniel was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in October of 2003, Team In Training (TNT) had been around for many years. Thousands of folks had volunteered their time to train for endurance events and raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). In fact, at that time, TNT had raised millions of dollars for LLS. As noble as this is, it is doubtful that Noreen was overly concerned with this. The Zuñiga’s were participating in an endurance event of their own—without the benefit of any advanced training. They were fighting, as a family, to save Daniel’s life.

Daniel was a 16-year old football player. The Friday before his diagnosis he played in a football game for Chamblee High School. He had some headaches that were slowing him down on the field so Noreen took him to visit the pediatrician. In one visit, everything changed. All efforts were deployed to get Daniel healthy. Noreen took a leave of absence from her job and the Zuñiga’s went from a two-income family to a one-income family for several months. There were hospital visits, insurance forms to fill out, co-pays to meet, and duties and expenses that hadn’t existed the month before. Noreen describes it as overwhelming.

Enter The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Terry Sexton, an LLS staffer, walked alongside the Zuñiga family throughout the course of Daniel’s treatment. She offered moral support and practical advice to help Noreen and her family navigate this strange new world. When you talk to Noreen today, she expresses overwhelming gratitude for Terry, LLS, and the TNT family. She reminisces about Daniel being the Honored Hero for the Vancouver Marathon in 2005 and how much that meant to them. She talks about how her faith and the prayers of friends and strangers kept them going. And she talks about giving back.

Today, Daniel is cancer-free and Noreen and her daughter Katie are training and raising money for LLS! On Thanksgiving Day, Noreen and Katie will complete a half-marathon in Atlanta with the Team In Training family. Every mile they cover is their way of giving back and ensuring that the help that was so valuable to them will continue to be there for other families.

Noreen knows what percentage of money goes to help blood cancer patients and fund research. She knows the work it takes to train for five months to participate in a half marathon. She understands the costs of researching the drugs that will help blood cancer patients. And she is extremely grateful for all of that. But when she crosses the finish line Thanksgiving morning, she will probably not be focused on that. Instead, she will be sending prayers of thanksgiving that Daniel has been cancer-free for two years! She’ll know that the money she and Katie raise will help one more family deal with the unthinkable. And she’ll know that every step they covered will bring us one step closer to a cure.

11Alive backpack reporter, Julie Wolfe covered Noreen's story. Click here.

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