I’d like to tell you about Michael Mancuso. He was the strongest person I’ve ever known. Michael learned to fight when he was very young and was a fighter for almost his entire life. He was used to this lifestyle – getting knocked out cold over and over again, waking up tired and groggy and always ready to start fighting again. All he wanted was to be as strong as he could be. He would take drugs and pills to make himself stronger and stop the constant pain that went along with being a fighter. Mohammad Ali had nothing on Michael Mancuso.

Except about 66 years.

Michael Mancuso was seven years old. He was born Feb. 5, 2000 in Fort Worth to parents Michael Mancuso Sr. and Shameika Kennedy. He was immediately welcomed into a huge, unique family with a ton of love to give.

My family, actually.

Michael is my little cousin, on my mom’s side. In June, 2004, this brilliant, fun, lovable little boy was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, the most common form of cancer found in infants and children. According to http://www.emedicine.com, this disease gives rise to solid tumors around a patient’s adrenal glands, neck, chest, abdomen and/or pelvis. Neuroblastoma affects the sympathetic nervous system in those diagnosed, which is the group of nerves throughout the body responsible for the transport of messages from one’s brain to the rest of the body.

Doctors are currently unaware of how neuroblastoma arises, although some hypotheses suggest that factors during conception and gestation due to parental behaviors may play a role in the development of the cancer. According to various Web sites on childhood cancer, such as http://www.lunchforlife.org, neuroblastoma is responsible for six to 10 percent of the cancer cases in children ranging in age from infancy to nine. It is an incurable disease that takes the life of one child every 16 hours. All in all, childhood cancer kills more children per year than cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma and AIDS combined.

After Michael was diagnosed, our family witnessed the most upsetting childhood imaginable. His initial symptoms were pains in his legs, presumably caused by bone lesions in his legs and hips, and an inability to walk. His treatments started out with chemotherapy, a method of cancer treatment that I’ve seen wreak havoc on much bigger, stronger, older bodies than Michael’s. Michael’s 4-year-old body was diminished to skin and bones, but his beautiful bald head and ever-smiling face became an image distributed across the nation, a moving picture to other cancer patients and their worried families alike.

Just four months after Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, his uncle Marc was married. Michael was eager to be a part of the wedding and spend time with our enormous, absolutely crazy family at the reception afterward. However, it was obvious to everyone attending the wedding that the festivities were exhausting for Michael. His frail body was clearly fighting off the pain of his cancer and the effects of the chemotherapy. At the end of the weekend, Michael wanted to go to the airport to spend a little bit more time with my family before the flight back to New York. Unfortunately, he could only ward off his exhaustion for so long, and his trip ended with him curled up on my father’s shoulder, sleeping heavily after his exciting weekend.

Michael’s chemotherapy was followed by bone marrow transplants – one of the most painful operations for anyone, let alone a young boy – radiation, daily drugs and medicines including morphine to control his pain, more chemotherapy and, finally, a surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. It seemed then that Michael’s fighting had paid off – he was going to have a chance to grow stronger.

Some of the greatest months of Michael’s life followed – he completed kindergarten. His fun-loving, outgoing, spunky personality was catching; Michael touched the lives and hearts of his classmates and friends.

Then, he relapsed. The summer of 2006 began a harder struggle for his life than ever before, which would last for over a year. During this time, Michael was in constant pain. His stage IV neuroblastoma meant that his particular tumor had spread to his lymph nodes, bone marrow, bones and liver, among other body organs.

Michael’s doctors gave him a prognosis on June 18, 2007 – one that gave him two weeks to live. Michael managed to stretch this to two and a half months. However, he was in enormous pain, especially toward the end of his life.

My aunt Kathy, Michael’s grandmother, wanted Michael to be at home and comfortable, so he was hooked to an IV that injected morphine into his body periodically. There was also an option on Michael’s IV that would allow a manual injection of morphine if Michael complained of too much pain. His doctors hoped that the morphine would allow Michael to be free of pain and fall asleep. Every day toward the end of his life, Michael’s body was pumped full of hundreds of milligrams of morphine – amounts of a highly addictive painkiller that would normally knock a full-grown adult into unconsciousness.

It was then that it was confirmed that Michael was some sort of an angel in our family. As morphine pulsed through his body, he stayed awake and conscious, talking to his family, his nonnie (my aunt Kathy) and his brothers and sisters. He told them all, “Don’t cry, God has taken a little bit of cancer out of me and it will be OK.” For a number of days before his death, Michael experienced seizures and vomiting as his body began to shut down. On Sept. 9, 2007, as Michael drifted in and out of consciousness, he murmured to his surrounding family, “The angels are here, can you see them?” Then, after a fight that lasted three years, Michael opened his eyes wide, smiled brightly at his family and passed away.

Michael was only one of many children who are subject to shortened lives due to childhood cancer. While Michael’s biggest dream was to become a member of the FBI, his illness only allowed him to complete kindergarten. At Michael’s wake, a member of the Dallas branch of the FBI presented Michael’s parents with a badge, hat and official certificate stating that Michael G. Mancuso Jr. was an honorary FBI officer.

Michael’s dream was realized, but not in the way that it should have been. Too many children today suffer from their inability to realize their dreams and aspirations due to childhood cancer. Unfortunately, while our government gives almost $600,000 for research purposes for each patient of pediatric AIDS, it gives only $20,000 per victim of childhood cancer, according to http://www.lunchforlife.com.

One of Michael’s constant and greatest requests was that his doctors find a cure for cancer.

“I’m not the only one with cancer like this, lots of kids have it. You just have to find a cure,” he would say.

While Michael did all he could to motivate those around him to join in the fight against cancer, it is up to the rest of us to continue with this mission. UR is hosting the Relay for Life on April 5 at the Webster Field House.

I would like to strongly encourage each and every person to consider those touched by cancer, both victims and their families, and to make an effort to join the fight against cancer. Every donation can make a difference in ensuring that we try hard to fight against cancer cases ending like my cousin Michael’s.

Nicewicz is a member of the class of 2009.

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