Early in his life, Evaristo “Tito” Estrada survived a bout with cancer that left him a sad, lonely kid and cost him an eye.
Now the University of New Mexico student is set to make life a little easier for similar kids by leading a group of youngsters with cancer on a weeklong getaway in the Manzano Mountains at a camp he used to attend.
Camp Enchantment was Tito’s soft place to land after years of pain and mockery.
Tito’s battle began when he was a 15-month-old toddler living with his mom and dad and three older sisters in Lincoln, Neb. His mother noticed that his eyes watered all the time.
In photographs, they always looked yellow instead of their normal brown, and he was constantly banging his head and crying and in pain.
After taking him to three doctors who thought it was an eye infection, his mother took him to an eye specialist who diagnosed Tito with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer.
Treatment started quickly: Within a month, surgeons removed his left eye and used tissue from his buttocks to create a space into which they placed a prosthetic.
Cryotherapy was used in his right eye; although it made him nearsighted, it wiped out the proliferating cells.
He was cancer-free by the age of 3.
But because the fake eye wasn’t technically advanced, everyone could tell he had one. In first grade, the sixth- and seventh-graders at his school in Lincoln taunted him with names like “cyclops” and “one-eyed freak.”
His mother started looking at local cancer treatment hospitals for youth support groups so he could be around kids who’d been through what he’d been through, but she came up empty.
“I had no one to talk to … I was lonely, I felt isolated,” he recalled in an interview last week. “It made me feel terrible, it made me feel sad. I was like, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ That’s what I felt like.”
Fast forward to 2006. Tito was 12 and sporting a more convincing fake eye, because every five years, his prosthetic specialist in Omaha would fit him with a new one at about $2,000 a pop.
Technological advances meant the fake eye looked less glassy and more natural and could move right, left, up, and down. “Something with the nerves or something,” he said. “It was pretty awesome.”
He was becoming like the rest of the Nebraska kids he knew.
Then his mother’s arthritis flared up. It was cold and wet in Nebraska, and she needed a new environment that was warmer and dryer.
The Estradas were Albuquerque-bound.
Tito started going for checkups at the pediatric oncology center at the University of New Mexico, and each year he came up cancer-free.
On one visit he met a caseworker named Yolanda. He forgot her last name, but remembered some key nuggets she had to share.
Yolanda knew of not only a support group for cancer kids, but also Camp Enchantment, a camp for children with cancer located in the Manzano Mountains.
“I was like, very excited about it, but I was a little nervous, because I was worried that no one was going to talk to me and stuff.”
Tito decided to tough it out and go, and, he says, “It changed my life completely.”
What he found was instant acceptance, instant understanding. “I was very shocked. Everyone was very nice to me. People started talking to me. For once, I felt very comfortable talking about my cancer.”
And he could feel a shift in his spirit immediately.
“It was life-changing. It made me more happier as a person. My loneliness went away. I appreciate life more.”
He stayed in a cabin with boys his age, practiced a ropes course, went camping in the woods, played hide-n-seek in the dark, and made s’mores over a campfire. “It made it easier for me to make friends because they had what I had.”
He went back every year.
“I fell in love with it. The only thing I was looking forward to for the summer was camp.”
Then last May, as Tito – now 19 – began to age out of being a traditional camper, he decided to become a Counselor-in-Training, learning conflict resolution, leadership and responsibility through training sessions at UNM and by shadowing another counselor who was already working with 8- and 9-year-olds at the camp.
“There was this one kid, I think he had leukemia,” he recalled of a profound moment during his counselor training experience. “We started talking about each other’s cancers, and he was feeling kind of sad about it, and I told him, ‘You’re here now; you’re fine.’ I made him smile a lot.”
Tito recently told his story at the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Basketball Gala fundraiser, which raises money to cover the $1,500 cost per camper.
Last year 71 kids got to go, but this year 84 are at the camp because more money was raised.
And this year Tito is leading his own group as a counselor for the first time. He heads a troop of 7- and 8-year-olds – some now cancer-free, others still being treated.
The decision to become a counselor was easy, because he knows he has what the campers need: the perspective from a childhood cancer survivor who made it out OK.
“It made me a stronger person, and I just want to talk to kids about it, and if they have the same problems I did, I want to give them advice and be there for them.”
Elaine Tassy covers social services and children and family issues for the Journal. Reach her at email@example.com or 505-823-3828.