Teen cancer survivor relays positive message
April 21, 2010 at 7:05 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2010 at 11:21 p.m.
Bryan Kalina smiles easily and laughs often.
The 13-year-old cancer survivor is one of the honorees at the 14th annual Victoria County Relay for Life.
"It feels amazing," said the Industrial Junior High School seventh-grader. "I am looking forward to meeting all the people that have gone through chemotherapy and cancer and them seeing me as a survivor at this age. It's a real honor."
Bryan's journey, which resulted in a 90 percent loss of vision in his left eye and 40 percent in his right, began when he was 2 years old and his parents noticed vision problems.
He would sit very close to the TV. He also had trouble sleeping and wasn't eating well. Telltale light-colored birth marks also concerned Claude and Deidra Kalina.
Deidra Kalina had seen those before. She lost her left eye years earlier after suffering neurofibrosis.
"Back then, there wasn't a name for it," she said. "I had a tumor on my optic nerve and had neuro surgery."
Doctors couldn't pinpoint the extent of Bryan's problem until age 5 - when Dr. Johan Zwaan in San Antonio thought he detected a tumor.
An MRI detected a 5-centimeter tumor on Bryan's optic nerve. Bryan was diagnosed with Optic Hypothalamus Glioma.
Two weeks before starting kindergarten, Bryan began weekly chemotherapy at Driscoll's Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi. The trips lasted two and a half years.
The Kalinas would leave Victoria every Friday at 5:30 a.m. and put in 12-hour days on the road and at the hospital.
"He never cried. He never whimpered," said Deidra Kalina.
Bryan remembers those days, too.
"I was just a little kid. I let them do what they needed to do so I could go home," Bryan said. "Then I'd go home and say, OK that was my day."
Bryan also credits a stuffed dog named Spot, given to him by his sister, for helping him through treatment.
But Bryan did more than simply undergo treatment. Even at that young age he reached out to others.
He said he helped a couple of boys get through their treatments by befriending them, and one girl in particular stands out.
"She was coming in one day for her first treatment, 18 years old. She was scared; she was crying," Bryan said. "I said come with me and I took her in and showed her the equipment. When we were leaving, she gave me a thumbs up sign saying she was OK. I thought that was pretty cool."
His mother was naturally proud of Bryan.
"He became known as the ambassador at Driscoll," she said. "He didn't know a stranger. Everybody knew him. He would talk to everybody and help everybody. It was amazing."
These days, Bryan considers himself a normal kid. He admits some problems with writing and in art class, but he uses oversized text books and a dome magnifier to help him become what his mother calls a "solid B student."
Sports, too, are a problem for Bryan. Playing ball is out of the question due to his vision problems.
But it doesn't deter the upbeat teen.
"I feel like a normal kid," he said. "There are things kids can do that I can't do, but I'm used to doing everything with one eye. I've gotten better and don't really think about it."
His strength seems to be in reaching out to others, especially other kids.
"Sometimes people will be having rough times and I'll say, 'It's no big deal. Breath and relax. It'll be okay.' And they'll say, 'What am I worried about?' Later they'll thank me," he said.
Bryan is thankful for the opportunity to take part in this year's Relay for Life.
"I think I will feel great with one big happy family of survivors that know what everyone else has gone through," he said.
With a smile on his face, Bryan will be there among the thousands of participants - his fellow honorees, Relay for Life walkers and other supporters.