Twelve-year-old Juanito Moreno of Highland Park is excitedly preparing for one of the biggest moments in his life: running the 26-mile Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.
Watching him prepare for the big event with fellow students from Academia Avance’s Middle School in Lincoln Heights and High School in Highland Park, it’s hard to tell that it wasn’t too long ago that his young body was racked with pain or that his future was less certain.
Today he looks like many boys his age, but it’s been a long and difficult road to get to this point, his mother Gloria Moreno told EGP.
Juanito was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of six. Moreno told EGP the diagnosis shocked and devastated their family, which had no prior history of the illness.
One day “I noticed [Juanito’s] skin color had changed, he was pale. He started vomiting so I took him to the clinic,” the boy’s mother said in Spanish.
The clinic said he might be having liver problems and referred him to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).
“That same day, around 9 p.m. I was told he had leukemia,” Moreno said.
Juanito was admitted to Children’s Hospital with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a type of blood cancer more common in young people.
Juanito told EGP that at the time he didn’t understand the seriousness of his condition.
“I didn’t really know what I had, but it was something that hurt my body” he told EGP earlier this week. “I was vomiting all the time and I kept gaining weight,” he explained before getting ready to train for Sunday’s marathon.
His condition was severe and he was in pain all the time, recalled Moreno, her eyes filling with tears as she described how her son’s hair fell out and how hard he struggled to get well.
He would spend the next year in and out of the hospital and had to be home schooled because he was too sick to go to school.
When he was at last able to return as a second grader to Monte Vista Elementary, a new set of problems started, his mother said. Because his immune system was still weak, Juanito had to wear a hospital type mask to keep him safe from germs. Rather than being sympathetic, the other students would laugh at him, recalled his mother. “I would get very upset when I saw the other children pointing and laughing at him,” she said, adding the school did little to help her handle the painful situation.
Lea este artículo en Español: Niño Sobreviviente de Leucemia Correrá el Maratón de Los Ángeles 
Moreno said she knows it was ignorance about the disease that caused their reaction, and thought if she educated the other parents about leukemia things would improve, but said no one showed up to listen her talk. She said her son’s teacher at the time advised her to teach Juanito to learn to live with it.
Thankfully, Moreno said, they started getting help from Padres Contra el Cancer, a non-profit organization that provides support to the families of children with cancer. “They help you a lot, morally, emotionally,” Moreno said.
Juanito’s treatment included three year’s of chemotherapy that left him weak and feeling sick all the time. Today, Moreno still fights back tears as she remembers being unable to ease his suffering.
Juanito’s leukemia is now in remission and he goes regularly to have his blood checked just to verify “everything is ok.” He says he never lost hope, but adds it was hard for his parents to let him get back to doing things other kids do.
He learned about the L.A. Marathon when he was in the sixth grade and signed up to run, but his parents refused to let him participate. This year, they gave in.
“He saw the other kids and wanted to do it,” said Moreno, explaining she worried it would be too much for him. But he was “obsessed” and she agreed to attend a meeting hosted by Students Run L.A. —a teacher/students running team— to learn more about the marathon.
Moreno said her daughter Vanessa, 15, also went to the meeting and the mother convinced her to “go with him because I didn’t want him to run by himself.” Soon after, older brother Fidel, 17, joined the siblings.
“My mom told them to run with me to motivate me,” Juanito said, but she really wanted them to take care of him, he said.
Moreno admits she is still nervous about this epic moment in her son’s life.
Juanito has been training with Students Run L.A. at Academia Avance since September 2013.
Herbert Marquez, Juanito’s teacher and the team’s coach, said he was extremely surprised when he was told Juanito was a leukemia survivor. “I didn’t know until the school held a fundraiser for leukemia survivors about three months ago.”
Marquez said students are required to take a physical, and Juanito’s did not show any abnormalities, but parents were still very concerned.
“At the beginning, there were a lot of questions about whether he will be able to do it, will he finish,” Marquez said. It took a while to get the final ok from the doctor and his parents, the coach said.
While Juanito may be one of the shortest and youngest runners on the 27-member team, his dedication to his training has earned him a spot among the 10 Academia Avance students chosen to meet with Elite L.A. Marathon runners on Friday.
The Moreno family says they will be out in full force to celebrate Juanito’s accomplishment, cheering him on across the 26-mile course, with a large group planning to celebrate Fiesta style as he passes Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. Highland Park activist Leslie Lambaren said she and her sons will be there with a mariachi playing as Juanito runs by.
“Juanito’s story is a powerful story,” Lambaren told EGP. It’s about a mother who has done so much “so her son can achieve his goals,” she said.
“Since I’m a survivor of leukemia, I want to encourage others not to give up and keep trying,” said Juanito, a big smile on his face.
Moreno wants to tell others who might be facing something similar “not to give up. “I know miracles do exist, God exists,” she said.
Juanito told EGP he appreciates all his mother has done for him and he hopes to continue to make her proud. “I like to see her really happy,” he said.
And like many boys his age, Juanito says he has big dreams: “I’m going to try to keep [running] and I’m going to try to get to the Olympics.”
Twitter @jackieguzman