As cancer spreads in young mother, so does generosity of community

Parties for 21-year-old Maria del Mar-Mejia aren't about having fun.

Instead, they're about raising money for the Colombia native and mother to live longer.

In the past month, several fundraising parties have been held in Southwest Florida to help pay for del Mar-Mejia's cancer treatment. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin's stage 4 cancer, a severe cancer of the lymph nodes, when she was 17.

Del Mar-Mejia, who is married and has a 2-year-old son, thought she had beaten the cancer found in her neck.

She had gone into remission in December 2002 after completing eight months of chemotherapy treatments and 17 radiation treatments, wearing a metal port and enduring the physical and mental toll.

But the cancer returned.

In June 2005, doctors found cancer in her trachea. Six months later a small tumor had grown close to her lungs. She underwent surgery April 12.

Also, the cancer is believed to be attacking her stomach.

Maria del Mar-Mejia, 21, hugs her son Jeremy Vasquez, 2½. Del Mar-Mejia was diagnosed with Hodgkin's stage 4 cancer, a severe cancer of the lymph nodes, when she was 17.

Submitted photo

Maria del Mar-Mejia, 21, hugs her son Jeremy Vasquez, 2½. Del Mar-Mejia was diagnosed with Hodgkin's stage 4 cancer, a severe cancer of the lymph nodes, when she was 17.

In earlier May, doctors gave del Mar-Mejia two months to live if she didn't get a stem-cell transplant to fight the cancer.

She said she felt horrible when she heard the news.

"It just wasn't me, but my baby too," said del Mar-Mejia, of Lehigh Acres.

She was given a 10 to 20 percent chance of survival if she didn't get the treatment. The transplant costs $200,000 to $400,000. She doesn't have insurance to cover a percentage of her hospital cost.

Monday, doctors told her the cancer had advanced.

In a soft, distant voice, del Mar-Mejia said, first of all, she fully relies on God, then on her family, including her son, Jeremy Vasquez, and husband, Ambiori Vasquez, for support.

Currently, the stay-at-home mother isn't undergoing chemotherapy.

In May, del Mar-Mejia and her family did the only thing they could. They prayed and they prayed some more for community donations that would help pay for her medical care.

In early May, the family sought help from Johnny Restrepo, publisher of the local Spanish-language newspaper, Paisano

"It broke my heart to hear Maria's moving story," said Restrepo, general manager of Congas Nite Club in Golden Gate.

Restrepo acted.

He sought help from various media outlets, including Univision, Telemundo and radio stations such as Latino 97.7.

"I had to do it, just like any human would do," he said.

A fundraiser was held Friday night at Congas Nite Club. Restrepo said donations made at the club will go to del Mar-Mejia's savings account. He hoped to raise $3,000 to $4,000.

"Everyone is pitching in. It's a great thing. I hope at least she can sustain her life ... it's in Gods hands," said Restrepo, a Colombia native.

He plans to raise money for del Mar-Mejia again at the Colombian Independence Festival in Cape Coral on July 16.

Two other fundraising parties have been held in the past month to benefit del Mar-Mejia. Casa Cabana Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Myers raised $2,800 and En Latino in La Belle raised $8,000.

To help raise money, del Mar-Mejia is raffling a car — a 1999 Buick. She plans to sell the tickets for $100.

Her sister, Diana Houser, of Cape Coral, said the community isn't just supporting her sister with money, but people who have had cancer or have been touched by a loved one suffering with cancer are calling del Mar-Mejia.

As of Thursday, there was about $55,000 in del Mar-Mejia's savings account at Bank of America.

Del Mar-Mejia will receive treatment at a hospital in Tampa or Miami.

Houser, 25, said the two factors restricting del Mar-Mejia to decide which hospital to go to is that she isn't a resident of those counties and is an illegal immigrant.

Today, Tropical Latino, 3639 Palm Beach Blvd., in Fort Myers, will host a fundraising party.

"The community has helped me tremendously," said del Mar-Mejia.

Donations can be sent to del Mar-Mejia's savings account at Bank of America.

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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