BERKELEY – For many of the roughly 60,000 fans who trek up to Strawberry Canyon for Cal football games, a day spent at California Memorial Stadium is just a regular football Saturday during the fall. But for three special families at last Saturday’s Portland State game, a day cheering on the Golden Bears was a day to treasure being “normal.”
When 7-year-old Kristina Massa came home from school abnormally sick, her mom, Jessica, wasn’t sure what to think. When Kristina walked straight into a wall, it became clear something was very wrong.
A doctor’s visit revealed a large mass on Kristina’s brain, and she was rushed to the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland. On May 21, 2013, Kristina was diagnosed with medulloblastoma – an invasive brain tumor located in the part of the brain that controls balance and other motor functions, and one of the most common cancerous central nervous system tumors in children.
Kristina underwent weeks of radioactive chemotherapy, grappling with symptoms such as nausea and hair loss, while missing out on her favorite activity – swimming – and spending time with her family, including siblings Tyler, 9, and Ashley, 5. The diagnosis and treatment was rough on everyone involved.
“We used to do more things – all seven of us – but through this time it’s been difficult. Everyone has had different coping skills,” Jessica said. “The radiation was so intense that she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t be out in the sun. We finally started to understand her limitations on July Fourth, when we couldn’t do anything as a family. She needed a walker just to get around.”
The Cal vs. Portland State game marked Kristina’s first afternoon in the sun and the family’s first outing since the diagnosis. Children Kristina, Tyler and Ashley, plus mom and dad Jessica and Rodney, and grandparents Tom and Lynnette Harmon, along with the families of Children’s Hospital and Research Center patients Karina Silva and Jonathan Pratt, enjoyed a magical day with behind-the-scenes experiences as the Bears’ special guests for the day through Cal’s new partnership with the Special Spectators organization.
Founded in 2002, Special Spectators partners with local hospitals and collegiate and professional sports teams to host extraordinary sporting event experiences for seriously ill children and their families and create a welcome distraction from the difficulties of the illness. The organization started with just two member schools and two events for the 2002 football season and has since grown to include 45 top Division I programs and sporting events spanning beyond football, such as gymnastics and baseball.
“With an illness, lives are completely turned upside-down. Kids are not able to go to school on a regular basis, and families can’t do the fun stuff they like to do,” said Special Spectators founder Blake Rockwell. “When a family can go to a game and have the type of experience like they had at Cal on Saturday, and kids see their parents and siblings having fun, and see how their illness has brought something fun and good to their life, it’s almost as if their guilt is lifted. Something as simple as doing a thing most of us enjoy every week or a few times year totally changes that. For the kids, it’s a different type of medicine. It’s one that really injects some spirit and confidence into their lives.”
The group joined the football team for the pregame March to Victory as fans welcomed the Bears to California Memorial Stadium and enjoyed activities at Tailgate Town. Before the game, they received a behind-the-scenes tour of Cal’s state-of-the-art Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance, including a tour of the football wing and training and medical facilities, plus a special presentation of the team’s pregame hype video. Before the game, the group hung out on the sidelines, where they were able to interact with players, the cheerleaders and Oski, and ran out of the tunnel with the Bears onto the field to watch the coin toss up close before settling in to seats at the Field Club level to enjoy the game.
“The type of struggle they go through is like nothing I could ever imagine,” said senior defensive lineman Austin Clark. “To be able to hang out with them even if it was just for a few minutes before the game and see them happy, make them smile and forget about their sickness and whatever they were going through was nice.”
For the Massas, Saturday’s special festivities marked the perfect beginning to Kristina’s long road to recovery, as she began her first cycle of maintenance of a 48-week treatment on Monday.
“This is the first time since she’s been diagnosed that I’ve seen my dad smile,” Jessica said.
To send an inspiring note or words of encouragement to any of the children who attended Saturday’s Special Spectators event, text “Go Bears” to 97779. For more information or to donate to Special Spectators, visit www.specialspectators.org.