Peyton Gonzales, 9, stood in front of a crowded lobby at Cardon Children’s Medical Center baring her unmistakable smile in a special celebration ceremony on Sept. 18.
The Peoria girl thanked nurses, doctors, other hospital staff and especially her family for their support of the announced full remission of an extremely rare form of cancer. The Cardon staff sang a special song with maracas, and she rang a ceremonial gong to great applause.
However, the celebration did not end there. During her treatment, Peyton began painting original pictures, of scenes and characters ranging from her family dog to SpongeBob SquarePants. She sold those paintings online through a GoFundMe site her family created and made a donation to the hospital with some of the proceeds.
“I heard my mom and dad (talking) about all the medical bills and I was sad, so I started selling the paintings and raised money,” she said.
As of the ceremony day, her GoFundMe page had raised over $17,000 through sales and donations. She used that money to not only help pay hospital bills, but also to provide a surprise donation to the medical center. Laid throughout the lobby of the floor she spent countless hours on was several televisions, video game systems, original paintings, pumps for air mattresses and even Starbucks gift cards for nurses who had helped her along the way.
“I want to help other kids here going through what I went through,” Peyton said.
Peyton was diagnosed with adrenal cortical carcinoma — which Cardon doctors claimed affects just one patient per million — after her parents noticed significant weight gain and far-too-early signs of puberty in October 2018. A tumor near her adrenal gland that doctors said covered several organs and encased blood vessels, inching steadily closer to her heart, was taken out in a surgery that lasted nearly 10 hours and required hospital staff to temporarily drain her body of all blood.
Jake Gonzalez, Peyton’s father, remembers a rollercoaster of emotions, as he felt entirely helpless and was encouraged shortly thereafter by her quick recovery.
Mere days passed after the surgery when he remembers Peyton wanting to walk to the playground. He could not help but be pleased as she played through a round of mini-golf.
“We thought she’d be on a respirator and knocked out for a week, that’s how bad we thought the surgery was. There’s just no way to not see God’s light in this,” he said.
In chemotherapy and other necessary hospital treatments, the Gonzales family adopted what they considered a necessarily positive attitude, led by the happiness Peyton showed every day. Even with the hours of chemotherapy and its physical side effects, Peyton regaled in memories of scaring nurses by hiding behind the door and jumping out at them at the last second. She also grew attached to a particular nurse, who would often tell her scary stories. She stayed strong throughout the process.
Rare was the disease, pediatric oncologist Naresh Reddivalla said, but even rarer was the positivity the young girl exuded. He believes her happy outlook coupled with support from her family were contributors to her recovery.
“Any time I will remember about this type of cancer, her smile will always flash in my brain,” he said.
As she stood in front of the crowd at Cardon cheering her health and attitude, nearly a year after her initial diagnosis, now cancer free, that same smile was contagious.
There will be some challenges moving forward. Peyton’s condition could leave her susceptible to further cancers or diseases later in life. She also missed a lot of school during treatment and has had her struggles catching up to her fourth-grade classmates.
When she gets frustrated, though, her family reminds her of the difficult battle she has already overcome.
“What we always tell her now is, ‘You kicked cancer’s butt, now this is nothing,’ so absolutely we use that,” Jake Gonzales said.