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Volleyball fundraiser on Tuesday benefits 5-year-old cancer patient preparing for 2nd stem cell transplant

The goal is to get Penelope Gomez of Joliet healthy enough for kindergarten

Come out Tuesday to Joliet Central and support Penelope Gomez of Joliet, age 5, as she prepares for her second stem cell transplant.

Joliet Central High School will host the annual Pink Heals JT Volleyball Fundraiser on Tuesday in its gymnasium. The Central vs. West cross-town volleyball event starts at 4:15 p.m. The JV game at 4:45 p.m. and then the Pre-Game Survivors Ceremony and varsity game.

JTHS will sell Pink Heals Shirts for $15 each at the event. Anyone wearing the shirt to the event receives free admission. Otherwise, admission is $5 per person. Proceeds, which includes raffles and 50/50 tickets sold throughout the event, will also benefit the Gomez family.

Penelope was diagnosed with neuroblastoma on March 25 and turned 5 – her golden birthday – in the hospital while recovering from her first stem cell transplant, her mother Ali Gomez said. She’s also had five rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor, Ali added.

“I spent $70 on balloons and then I couldn’t bring them to her room,” Ali said.

Penelope will begin her second stem cell treatment in a couple of weeks. The side effects from her first stem treatment and chemotherapy treatments were “pretty rough,” Ali said.

Before Penelope’s diagnosis, Penelope’s discomfort was attributed to constipation and that “it was no big deal,” Ali said.

“And then it got worse,” Allie said. “She was uncomfortable, her belly was swollen, and I knew something wasn’t right.”

On “mother’s instinct,” Ali took Penelope to the emergency department where an ultrasound showed an 8-inch mass on Penelope’s adrenal gland, which had wrapped itself around arteries and veins, Ali said.

“I was in the room when she was getting an ultrasound and the ultrasound technician did not have a good poker face,” Ali said. “And I asked [the technician] but she didn’t respond. And then she was gone for, like, 15 minutes. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Penelope was transferred to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago by ambulance, Ali said. Penelope’s father Dave Gomez rode with Penelope and Ali returned home to Penelope’s siblings, Marley, 13 and Max. 3.

“Max just turned 3 and I don’t think he really understands what’s going on,” Dave said. “Marley seems to be holding up pretty well. We just have to get through it.”

During Penelope’s hospital stays, Ali and David adopt a “two days on and two days off” plan. This means, one parent spends two days in the hospital and then two days at home, switching with the other parent, giving them equal time with all children, Ali said.

Ali said Penelope’s tumor is fast-growing but not genetic, which is a plus.

“She’s considered high risk because of her age, but the doctors told us they’re gong to cure her,” Ali said. “They have literally said those words, ‘We will cure her.’ So my husband and I are putting out faith in those words.” She paused and then added, “I hope the plan is to fix her…she’s the happiest, most bubbly little girl I know. She’s just a happy kid. And so when she’s not feeling well, you know she’s not feeling well.”

Mostly, Ali wants people to know that everyone is doing their best for Penelope, she said.

“Our goal is to have her nice and healthy so she can go to kindergarten and do all those things she wants to do,” Ali said. “She wants to be in gymnastics. We had her signed up for it and then this happened. She has a central line so she really can’t do anything.”

Dave said Penelope is taking her cancer “like a champ.”

“She goes out and plays and doesn’t worry about wigs or hats or anything like that,” Dave said. “She just does her thing.”