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After losing two children to cancer, family deals with rare childhood condition for third time

Thomas John Borja is doing all he can to live the life of a 7-year-old, despite spending a lot of time away from his Salem home while fighting a rare form of cancer.

SALEM, Oregon — The death of a child is likely the hardest thing a parent may ever have to face — but imagine losing more than one, and all to cancer. That's the reality for a family from Salem, and right now they are determined to save their 7-year-old from the disease. They say they could desperately use help from the community.

Thomas John Borja is doing all he can to live the life of a 7-year-old, despite spending a lot of time away from his home in Salem. Thomas is fighting a rare form of brain cancer.

“Unfortunately, this year they found that he has a mass in his brain, the right side-lower. And from there they did surgery and we're doing treatments now for Thomas,” explained his mother, Ramona Borja.

Ramona is with her son full time as he goes through specialized proton radiation treatments and chemotherapy at Seattle Children's Hospital.

And through the challenging treatments, Thomas continues to shine as the bright light loved ones know him to be.  KGW found that out while visiting with Zelda Calvo, whom Thomas calls "Auntie Beautiful," and family godmother Carrie Kudna.

On a Zoom call connecting Keizer, Oregon with Seattle, Thomas told them about his treatments.

“I made it through all the hard ones because I can't get too much of that medicine,” said Thomas.

Doctors have not yet given a prognosis for the boy. But they believe his cancer is the result of something called constitutional mismatch repair deficiency (CMMRD) syndrome. It's a long name for a rare genetic disorder that greatly increases the risk of developing one or more types of cancer in children.

CMMRD is an affliction that Ramona now knows all too well. Her first daughter, Fatiana Hope, died of brain cancer in 2008 at the age of seven.  

“I was crying — I begged her doctors to help her, I asked God for help because I said I’ll do anything if you just give me back my daughter,” recounted Ramona.

Ramona began rebuilding her life from that tragic loss, only to have it happen all over again.

“And then my son 'A.J.,' Abraham John, he was eight at the time and had the same symptoms,” she said.

Her second child, Abraham John, also developed brain cancer. At that point doctors had not made the genetic connection, so Ramona had no way of knowing the hereditary nature of the disorder.

A.J. bravely fought his cancer off several times, as they moved from their native Guam to the United States for treatment and surgeries. But after settling in the Pacific Northwest and entering remission for six months, A.J. was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. He died in 2019, a month after his 14th birthday.

Testing after A.J.’s death identified the underlying condition and showed that the then-3-year-old Thomas had the same genetic disorder, CMMRD. So doctors performed regular MRI and colon screenings on the boy. At age 7, they discovered the brain tumor.

“It's the hardest thing to watch somebody you care about go through that and the only thing you can do is be there to support her,” said Kudna.

Of course, that support is extremely important, now focused on Thomas and his family. But they can't do it alone. Ramona is not able to maintain her job, and her fiancé is managing two other kids at home, also with no income.

“It would mean everything, even a little bit would mean everything,” said Calvo, who set up a GoFundMe to help with the cost of everyday living and added costs of travel and other expenses as Thomas gets specialized treatment in Seattle.

“The question — what do you do, how do you do it? You pray, and you have faith. And then you rely on your family and the community, right?” said Kudna.

Support from others would allow the family to stay focused on the most important thing: a beautiful boy who has earned his title, "Island Warrior."

“I'm praying for a second chance with Thomas, and I just pray that this treatment that he's doing is going to work, because I can't afford losing another child,” said Ramona Borja.

In mid-July, Thomas is scheduled to return to Salem and receive further treatment back at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.

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