For 16-year-old Danae Ontiveros, the flight home from Boston one month ago began as a celebratory trip.
She and fellow students from Paso Robles High School had won big at the National High School Journalism Convention. And, competing against students nationwide, she had been recognized for excellence in logo design.
But during that late-night flight, Ontiveros began to feel nauseated. Then she had difficulty breathing. She didn’t want to wake anyone on the plane, so she kept quiet. But after water polo practice two days later, she told her mother she was experiencing pain in her chest cavity.
“And I said, ‘OK, this is it. We’re going to go and have an X-ray and find out what’s going on,’ ” said her mother, Liz Ontiveros.
Numerous tests followed. And then came the difficult news:
“We were really shocked to learn her whole left chest cavity had a tumor that was surrounding her lung and at this time was collapsing her lung and putting pressure on it, causing trouble breathing,” her father said. “Her trachea was shifting to the right because the tumor was so big.”
On Wednesday, Danae’s former school, Trinity Lutheran School, dedicated its weekly chapel to her — and presented her parents with a box of donations. Meanwhile, students at Paso Robles High School have already planned to shave their heads in support of their peer. But this holiday season will be difficult for Danae, who is battling stage III Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that mainly afflicts children and adolescents.
“This changes you in so many different ways,” said Jon Ontiveros, a helicopter paramedic with the CHP. “You realize that things you thought were important aren’t as important anymore.”
After five years at Trinity, Danae is now in her third year at Paso Robles High School, where she has worked as a sports editor for the award-winning Crimson Newsmagazine. An active sports fan, she was also a cheerleader and swimmer who was trying out for the water polo team last month.
Jeff Mount, the Crimson’s advisor who has taught Danae in honors English and journalism, said she’s a funny, quiet and fashionable student. While she primarily performed editing functions for the magazine, two days before the competition in Boston, she offered to do some work for the logo design competition.
“I didn’t think she had a logo designer in her,” Mount said. “My jaw dropped.”
After the trip to Boston, Danae set her sights on making the water polo team. But just before Thanksgiving break, she was in the hospital, suddenly a cancer patient.
“They thought that she had been living with this tumor for at least a year,” Jon Ontiveros said.
After she was admitted to Valley’s Children’s Hospital in Fresno, chemotherapy began a few days after her diagnosis. Now home, she’s recuperating from her latest round of chemotherapy, which will shrink the tumor to the point where it can be surgically removed.
Once word was out that Danae was sick, the community responded immediately. At Paso Robles High School, Crimson cohorts and classmates were stunned, Mount said.
“They cried the day that we announced it,” he said. “And they created a website — doinitfordanae.org.”
The site offers updates on Danae’s treatments, as well as shirts, bracelets and swim caps sold as a benefit for Danae and her family. According to the site, on Jan. 13, students at the high school will hold a Shave-a-Thon, shaving their heads as a benefit for Danae and Locks of Love — a charity to which Danae donated her hair before losing the rest to chemo.
Teachers at Danae’s previous school were also shocked by the news of Danae’s illness. But they, too, have offered to help.
“It’s been emotional but more in a rallying type of way,” said Jane Fairbank, principal at Trinity Lutheran, who recalls Danae as a quiet and caring high-achiever.
At Trinity Lutheran, students attend chapel once a week, offering skits, music and Bible readings. This time, students were preparing skits based on the book “The Sparkle Box” by Jill Hardie. In the book, which aims to show that Christmas is about more than consumerism, a sparkly box is used to offer items to both Jesus and those in need.
As students were preparing to do a presentation on their own sparkle box, they learned of Danae’s illness. So the sparkle box presentation was done in her honor.
After doing a series of sketches about the importance of giving, representatives from each class offered donations into the sparkle box and presented it to Danae’s tearful parents Wednesday.
The donations include checks written by parents, gift cards to restaurants, money raised from bake sales, piggy-bank money, cards from students and prayers.
Jon Ontiveros — who had to choke back tears to thank the students and staff — said he knew it would be difficult to attend the presentation. But he wanted to show the family’s appreciation.
Danae was recovering from her latest chemo and unable to attend, but she wrote a note to supporters on the website Caring Bridge: “It will be quite a road ahead so it is very reassuring to know I have you all with me for support.”
“She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her,” said her father. “She doesn’t want people to feel sad, and I think that’s the hardest part for Danae — knowing people are sad.”
While the illness has turned the family’s lives upside down, the family remains positive.
“This is just a little deterrent, and she will definitely get through this,” Liz Ontiveros said. “And I know she has an army behind her, helping her fight when she has a bad day."
While Danae is interested in sports and journalism, she’s also interested in nursing, her dad said. And this experience has given her the desire to help others who are battling cancer.
How to help
Donations can also be sent by writing to CAHP Cares Attn: Ontiveros Family, 2030 V St., Sacramento, CA 95818. (Checks made out to CAHP Care should include Ontiveros Family on the memo line.)