UNM Lobos football player Juan Lopez
By El Gibson

Game Plan

Pediatric Cancer Patient Meets Lobo Football Players and Gets Tour of Athletic Facilities

On June 17, Juan Lopez and his family were invited to University Stadium to meet with University of New Mexico football players, watch their practice and tour the facilities.

The visit was part of the LIFEtime Impact Program – where UNM Athletics and the UNM Children's Hospital team up to give patients of the UNM Children's Hospital Pediatric Hematology Oncology team the chance to experience Lobo Athletics from the inside.

Juan Lopez
I do see myself going to college and playing football, so this is pretty cool to see. It’s pretty amazing. I’m thankful to the whole team who could make it possible for me to be here
Juan Lopez, No. 56

“I do see myself going to college and playing football, so this is pretty cool to see. It’s pretty amazing,” Lopez said before being given a tour of the weight room. “I’m thankful to the whole team who could make it possible for me to be here.”

Lopez’s mom Evangelina Lopez said her son has been playing football since he was 11 years old.

“He’s always been motivated with football. Football is his No. 1 thing,” she said. “To be here, it’s actually really, really exciting.”

Lopez’s cancer journey started when one night, he felt a lump in his right testicle he hadn’t noticed before.

“It was like a golf ball,” he said. “It was just abnormal.”

Lopez, who is 17 and attends Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, quickly went to the internet to look for answers.

“I had looked it up on Google because I was wondering what it could be,” he said. “I read that it could be because of trauma to the area – or it could be cancer.”

After his mom came home later that night, he told her right away.

A couple days later, Juan’s mom made an appointment for him to see his general practitioner. After getting it checked out, the doctor referred Lopez to The University of New Mexico Hospital.

After running some tests and getting an ultrasound, Lopez was given a diagnosis on March 1: Testicular cancer.

“It was just shocking to us. I looked at my mom and she was just crying,” Lopez said. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I was numb.”

According to Lopez’s oncologist Maria Maruffi, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics Hematology Oncology at the UNM School of Medicine, his cancer is categorized as low risk, “but he had to have two large surgeries and a bunch of pictures to evaluate his disease to get here,” she said.

Lopez had a germ cell tumor that was removed, and then it was discovered there were rhabdomyosarcoma cells involved, which changed the course of his treatment. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Along with his team at the UNM Hospital as well as those involved with the LIFEtime Impact Program, Lopez said his friends and family have been supportive throughout his cancer journey.

“My friends and I shaved our heads and made TikToks about it. That was a fun day,” Juan said. “And my mom and my family are right beside me all the time, always there supporting me and encouraging me. I just try to keep my head up.”

One friend, he said, has been there for Lopez since he received his diagnosis.

“My best friend Manny, he’s really been there for me. His family prays for me,” Lopez said. “I talk to Manny a lot. He’s really supportive and always there for me when I need him.”

Even with a wealth of support, Lopez said there are still times when it all feels like too much to handle.

“There have been some days that I’ve felt pretty down,” he said. “The day my hair started falling out is really when it really hit me, like it was really happening.”

Lopez said he wants to help overcome the stigma of testicular cancer, especially because testicular cancer has a high cure rate in young males if treated early.

“I want people to know that they should check their bodies,” he said. “This can be serious.”

Evangelina Lopez echoed her son’s sentiments about speaking up and speaking early when something feels off.

“We want people to know that if something feels wrong, tell somebody you trust and don’t wait. This could have affected the other organs in his body, so I’m glad he spoke up in time and actually came up to me and told me,” she said. “I really encourage kids to speak up. I think that’s really important.”

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