On sunny afternoons while other boys were outside playing soccer and riding their bikes, young Andrew Ysiano was losing his hair and lying in a hospital bed, recovering from radiation and chemotherapy treatments. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer at eight years old.
To take his mind off his misery, his mother would play games with him and do arts and crafts projects. When he would fall asleep in his hospital bed, she would sleep in a chair alongside him.
“He was my life,” said Margarita Barriga. “The only time I came home was when he came home.”
She remembers vividly the day their lives changed forever.
Her oldest child and only son had been suffering from migraines and vomiting for weeks. After multiple tests failed to reveal the cause, his family’s pediatrician conducted a MRI that confirmed a tumor was growing inside his brain.
“It was pretty scary,” Andrew said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Andrew was rushed from Stockton to Oakland where a team of specialists were waiting to treat him. A biopsy showed Andrew suffered from a cancerous tumor called Medulloblastomas. Each year, 500 children are diagnosed with the tumor. It is the most common type of brain cancer to develop in children, accounting for up to 20 percent of all cases.
The aggressive, deadly tumor was growing in his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and other complex motor functions. If not detected and removed, the tumor would have ended Andrew’s short life.
“It was devastating,” Margarita said. “As a parent that breaks your heart.”
Just days after being diagnosed, neurosurgeons scheduled surgery to remove the tumor. Shortly before the 10-hour procedure, his father, Andrew Ysiano (publisher of the Latino Times), tried to comfort his son, he recalled recently.
He asked young Andrew what flavor of anesthesia he wanted to put him to sleep before the 10-hour surgery. His son looked up from his hospital bed, minutes from having his head cut open, and said: “It doesn’t matter dad. Let’s just get this done.”
After two attempts, surgeons successfully removed the entire tumor from Andrew’s brain. But the threat of it returning remained.
For the next 18 months, Andrew struggled through chemotherapy and radiation that robbed him of his vitality and his body of its strength. At times he would spend weeks in the hospital, barely able to walk out when he was released because the harsh treatment left him so weak.
One day when his spirit was low, he cried out to his mother: “Mom, I’m going to die … I’m going to die.”
Home but not Healed
After endless months of traveling to and from hospitals in Oakland and San Francisco, Andrew was well enough to come home – and stay. The “Miracle Kid” as his mother called him had survived the relentless, recovery process, and though its shadow lingered the cancer remained in remission.
Unfortunately due to the tumor and treatment, Andrew suffered short term memory loss and stunted growth. As if the cancer and recovery were not enough.
“It’s hard, very hard,” said Andrew’s father of the never ending hardships. “But there is hope. And you have to have a positive attitude. If not, it’ll tear you apart.”
Not being able to retain parts of what he learned in class, or read in textbooks, made school very challenging. He had already missed months of school due to the surgeries and treatment. But now he would have to work even harder to keep up with the course curriculum.
To ensure he understood and retained the lessons of the day, Andrew would visit his teachers during lunch and review. His mother stayed on him as well, making sure he did his homework.
“I was on him like 24-7,” Margarita recalled. “I felt like I needed to be.”
To keep his spirits high, his father would take him to see rodeos that were taking place in the area. Young Andrew had always had an interest in cowboys. Sometimes he wore Mexican cowboy hats and boots, and even the large belt buckles cowboys often wear.
When he arrived at Cesar Chavez High School as a freshman, Andrew’s hair had grown back and his body had fully recovered from his treatment. But mentally and socially, he was still not yet fully healed.
His Mariachi teacher Mel Suguitan recalled learning of his ordeal from his mother during one of the first conversations they had.
“She wanted me to know he was still going through a healing process,” Suguitan said.
A Mind for Music
Young Andrew was shy and timid when he walked into Suguitan’s classroom for the first time. But he was eager to learn the Mexican music that was part of his roots. He had always enjoyed Mariachi and was exposed to it at an early age by his father. As a little boy Andrew would pretend that he was performing Mariachi on stage like many of his relatives in Mexico had done.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
Although he had not had any formal musical training until that year, Andrew quickly grasped how to play the guitar and the vihuela, a string instrument similar to the guitar. Eventually he also learned to play the accordion, bass, and keyboard. He could also sing Mariachi songs with an ease and passion not common among youth.
He became one of only a handful of freshmen to make it to the advance Mariachi class by the end of the school year. The advanced class also serves as Cesar Chavez’s Mariachi band, the only one of its kind in the region.
“We don’t get a lot of the talented ones like Andrew,” Suguitan said. “To be able to play at an advance level and sing is very rare.”
As part of the Mariachi Band, Andrew performed in numerous events, including during a visit by former Mexico President Vicente Fox, on live television during an appearance on Univision, and before a few thousand audience members for an annual musical showcase at the Stockton Arena.
On stage he became alive, feeding off the crowd’s energy as he entertained them with his passionate performances. Performing not only fulfilled him, it helped him forget his childhood ordeal with cancer.
“Music was part of relieving that pain,” his father said.
In an Ending, a Beginning
It has been 10 years since that dreadful day of his diagnosis. The cancer that formed in his brain has never returned. Healed and healthy, Andrew has graduated from high school and is headed to college.
He plans to enroll at San Joaquin Delta College for a couple years before transferring to a university, perhaps University of the Pacific. He wants to become a Spanish and music teacher, and also a translator.
On the night of his high school graduation on June 5, a few family members gathered at the house before heading to the ceremony. Before they left, Andrew’s mother Margarita proposed a toast in her son’s honor. The adults lifted glasses filled with wine while the children raised glasses sparkling with apple cider.
Graduating high school was a great accomplishment, said Margarita, but even though the obstacles from cancer were over, the hard work he put in to overcome its effects was not.
College awaits him, and with it more challenges.
“This is also the beginning of a new chapter in your life,” she said. “I look forward to your next graduation.”
The Ysiano and Barriga families would like to extend our sincere thanks to all of our family members and friends who have supported young Andrew all of these years with your kindness, love and prayers. But most of all we would like to thank God for blessing us with this beautiful young man and sending angels every step along the way to protect and guide his path.
We appreciate your continued prayers and support as Andrew embarks upon this next chapter of his life.