Manvir was tired. His eyelids felt heavy, so he closed them, rubbed his face, and looked over at his mother. Pawan Guleria was telling their story – the story of Manvir’s journey with cancer.
The words began to catch in Pawan’s throat. Her voice wavered. Manvir, 10, reached over and put his hand on his mother’s wrist. She took his hand and held it in hers. They looked at each other. His gesture spoke volumes: I’m going to be ok, mama.
“That’s who he is,” Pawan says. “He is kind and loving and empathetic and even through all of this, he has kept a smile on his face. I don’t know if I’d be able to do the same in his shoes.”
A Devastating Diagnosis
Before the word “cancer” ever came into their lives, the Gulerias were enjoying an idyllic family life. Manvir was in the second grade, making friends, and exploring new hobbies. The family had just returned from Manvir’s first visit to India. Everything was moving in the right direction, Pawan says. It felt like nothing could go wrong.
First the pandemic hit. Then Manvir began experiencing mysterious symptoms and an ultrasound revealed a large mass in his stomach. Pawan says the doctors knew what it was even before the biopsy results came back: Manvir had stage 4, high-risk neuroblastoma – a dangerous childhood cancer that had already spread across his then nine-year-old body.
“It came completely out of the blue and hit us like a ton of bricks,” Pawan says. “You hear ‘stage 4’ and think: ‘That’s so far along. Are we going to come back from this? Are we going to lose him?’ That first day was the hardest. And then after that, everything gets a little easier because you know you have to move forward. You know you have to fight.”
Living with Cancer
Manvir was admitted to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland where he would be hospitalized repeatedly over the next two years.
While his classmates were returning to in-person school and learning to play soccer, Manvir was undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, multiple rounds of antibody therapy, two bone marrow transplants, and a 16-hour tumor resection surgery.
Pawan says it was devastating to watch her child go through something so out of her control. She learned to hold onto fleeting moments of joy. Like when Ahbi, the hospital therapy dog, visited after surgery, and Manvir smiled despite how low he was. Or when Lauren, a music therapist, brought Manvir out of a funk and into a ukelele jam session. Or when Manvir was feeling awful, when he wanted to be anywhere else, and every doctor, every nurse, showered him with kindness.
“We could have gone anywhere. But it’s not only the facility when you’re going through something like this. It's the people. It's the nurses and the doctors. It's the feeling of compassion that you get from everyone here. That's what makes this place so special.”
A Hopeful Future
Manvir is home now. The family finally received good news in April, when a scan showed that the cancer was in remission. They hope this means Manvir can regain some semblance of normalcy. He dreams of traveling overseas, riding an overnight train through a new landscape, taking in-person music classes, and learning karate. He would also love to go back to school after three years away from other children.
“We are optimistic,” Pawan says. “This hospital has given us the comfort of knowing that our child is so well taken care of, and that we are one of their highest priorities. That means a lot when you’re going through one of the hardest times that you can go through as a family. If giving to this hospital will allow just one more child and family to feel that way, it’s worth it."