Tiny Juliana Peña feasted on mozzarella sticks soon after she returned to her South San Francisco home from another long stint at the hospital.
"She was crying for them," said the girl's father, Jesus. "She ate them each day -- three days in a row."
The cheesy treat brought back a sense of childhood normalcy that has seemed far away these days. Four months ago, Juliana's parents, who have endured anguish before with the loss of their first child at birth, were heartbroken again -- this time by a disease with a frightening name and even more frightening results.
On April 11, just a month before she turned 2, Juliana was diagnosed with a form of cancer called neuroblastoma, which strikes only a few hundred children in the U.S. each year. Devastated but determined to help save their only child, the parents have had to quickly learn as much as they can about the affliction so they can nurse Juliana when away from the hospital.
The family's plight has caught the attention of Bay Area rappers, who are planning a fundraising concert to help with the girl's medical costs.
"When I saw the pain she was suffering and the toll on the family, I knew I had to help," said family friend Cochise Thomas, who goes by the rap moniker CoBlooded the Great and is leading the event and pushing a benefit rap album.
Since her diagnosis, Juliana has endured surgery to remove much of the malignant tumor in her abdomen, several chemotherapy sessions, blood transfusions, and CT scans. Next month, she is scheduled for a bone-marrow transplant at UC San Francisco.
"We've been lucky to spend two weeks straight at home," said Jesus Peña, who's gone on stress-disability leave from his job as a FedEx courier to contend with Juliana's illness.
Juliana's parents started noticing trouble in March. But few parents imagine cancer.
"She was not eating and was lethargic," Jesus Peña said. "She was just crying and complaining. It got to the point that she was spitting food out, and it looked like she was losing weight."
The sudden changes baffled the family. Up to that point, Juliana was a typical animated toddler who loved to dance, listen to music and read books. The only times Juliana had seen the doctor were for regular checkups.
"She was never sick," said her mother, Patricia Watson. "She never got a cold. Never."
But the girl's visits to the doctors soon became frequent. After blood tests and an ultrasound, the family was told that Juliana suffered from Stage 3 neuroblastoma, an advanced phase of the cancer.
"The tumor was so huge it was pushing her kidney and up her spleen," Jesus Peña said.
The diagnosis blindsided the girl's mother. "I was in anger and disbelief," said Watson, who with Jesus Peña lost a son at childbirth in 2003.
But the family had no time to dwell on the unfairness of life; they had to delve into mounds of information about neuroblastoma and be taught how to care for Juliana at home.
"I feel I could take a test for a nurse in oncology and pass it with flying colors," Jesus Peña said.
"Before, it was scary -- they handed us a three-ring binder full of paperwork on neuroblastoma. But now I know it like the back of my hand."
The girl's parents also learned to clean the two tubes surgically attached to Juliana's chest, he said. The tubes are used to draw blood samples. She carries a feeding tube through her nose, as well.
In July, Juliana underwent surgery that took out "probably 99 percent" of the tumor, said Dr. Steven Bergstrom of the pediatric hematology oncology department at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland.
But she still had to go through rounds of chemotherapy, Bergstrom said.
"She's been through a heck of a lot with all the chemo," he said. But through it all, the girl displays a strong spirit. "She's feisty," Bergstrom said. "She's a funny girl."
The only way Juliana would let the doctor check her ears is if he asked to look for a platypus, Bergstrom said, chuckling.
"I don't see a platypus," the doctor would tell the girl as he peered in.
That's OK, because Juliana always has her stuffed Perry the Platypus, the fedora-wearing character from the "Phineas and Ferb" cartoon show.
"It's her favorite toy," Bergstrom said.
The family has picked up on Juliana's feistiness in the face of a prognosis that puts the child's chances of survival at 45 to 60 percent, even after the bone-marrow transplant.
Jesus Peña has done his own calculations.
"I'm 110 percent sure she will overcome this," he said. "I can't think otherwise. If I let that happen, then I'm letting the devil win and the disease win.
"We know what could come of this even after all the treatment, but our one goal is to get her cancer-free and have her live a long life."
Contact Neil Gonzales at 650-348-4338.
neuroblastoma at a glance
It can develop in any part of the sympathetic nervous system, most notably the adrenal gland (50 percent occurrence) and abdomen next to the spine (24 percent).
There are 500 cases per year reported in the United States.
It is the second-most-common cancerous mass that can afflict young children, exceeded only by brain tumors.
More than 25 percent of cases are diagnosed by age 1, 50 percent by 2 and 90 percent by 8.
The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, swelling in the legs and weight loss
Sources: American Pediatric Surgical Association and other research
FUNDRAISING SHOW PLANNED
A benefit concert for Juliana Peña originally was scheduled for Sept. 2 at Space 550, 550 Barneveld Ave. in San Francisco. But contract issues with the club will likely change the show's date and venue. To get updates on the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about ways to help the girl, visit her Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/julianasjourney.
View a photo slide show at www.mercurynews.com/extra.