When Joey and Jihan Cerda noticed their son Jaden was frequently experiencing excessive thirst and fatigue over the last year, the California parents grew concerned but weren't overly worried.
"We were thinking he might be diabetic or have sleep apnea. We never thought it was more serious than that," Joey, 44, tells PEOPLE. "Jaden was healthy. He was a wild man when he was little. He played football, soccer, Jiu-Jitsu — he did everything."
After multiple tests and MRIs, doctors told the Cerdas on Aug. 21 that Jaden, 10, had two non-germinomatous tumors on his brain near his pituitary gland. They were speechless.
"When you're an adult and 40, every headache you get, you're like, 'This is it,'" Joey explains. "But when you're looking at a kid, there's no way. It completely blindsides you as a parent."
With a new reality in front of them, the Cerdas are focused on keeping Jaden's spirits up as he prepares for a brain biopsy on Tuesday. At the same time, they're caring for their two other children: daughter Joya, 5, and son, Joey Jr., 12.
In order to help them with this daunting task, a GoFundMe page has been set up by Jihan's best friend, Arielle Rowe. Within three days, the fundraiser has already raised over $177,000 — all of which will go towards the Cerdas' rising medical expenses.
"The outpouring of love and kindness towards our family is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It gives me goosebumps," says the father of three, who works as a personal trainer and wellness/strength coach in Petaluma. "My son is going through this but all the love is such a powerful thing and he's thriving because of it."
Joey says his son has always been the "type of kid who when the ice cream truck pulls up, he'll get at the end of the line and let all the people go ahead of him."
"He's such an old soul," the dad of three shares. "His little sister is his best friend on the entire planet. He's so patient and so kind with her. It's always hard for him to make a Christmas list because he always says he's happy and has everything he needs."
Within the last year, Jaden started experiencing "a lot of tiredness and extreme thirst," to the point where Joey says he would guzzle a gallon of water per day.
"At first, you're thinking, 'Good job, buddy, you're drinking water,' because we promote that in our house," Joey recalls. "But he couldn't get enough. I could hear him getting up in the middle of the night, aggressively drinking water like he had been in the desert."
"He just didn’t have that spark [of energy] he normally does… and we didn’t know why," Joey notes. "He would sleep all night and then he would be dozing off on the couch and we'd go over and say, 'Come on, let's get up and go outside.'"
This abnormal behavior ultimately prompted the Cerdas to get testing done on Jaden — but those tests were later postponed until July due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That month, Jaden finally underwent several blood tests, including one for diabetes, which came back negative, and a lumbar puncture. The 10-year-old also started experiencing blurry vision and abnormal urine tests, so doctors ordered a brain MRI.
"I was still calm, but I begged to be able to stay in the MRI room with him because they don't let you," Joey recalls. "I was like, 'I need to hold onto his hand.' I pretty much jumped into the tunnel with him, and he did so great. He had no fear."
By mid-August, doctors confirmed that Jaden had two tumors on his brain and he needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately.
"You can't even imagine it," Joey says. "It feels like your soul leaves your body and everything around you, within two seconds, becomes completely meaningless. Nothing matters but your child's safety and health."
According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Insitute, non-germinomatous tumors are commonly found on the brain and secrete chemicals into the spinal fluid and bloodstream. These specific types require intensive treatment, the cancer institute reported.
Doctors, however, are unable to begin Jaden's treatment until they determine through a brain biopsy just how fast the tumors are growing and what type of cancer he has. During that procedure, Jaden will also receive a central line for chemotherapy, Joey says.
"That was so devastating, but as parents, you really quickly have to navigate how you're gonna do this," he says. "We don't want any negative anticipation or fear for him because that won't serve him through this. We're trying to keep his spirits up and keep him happy and positive."
Though easier said than done, the Cerdas have been able to help Jaden keep a positive outlook, thanks to the support from their family and friends, who have been sending texts and cards, decorating the house and offering services to make their lives easier.
"There's so much going on right now and a lot of hate and anger and fighting [on the news]," Joey explains. "But there's also so much love and togetherness and kindness out there. It's there, and it feels like it's all for my son right now."
"I would have never understood how powerful the love feels [if I hadn't gone through this]. You can move mountains with it," he adds. "We would take his place in two seconds and so would a lot of people around us. Knowing he has so many people who would be willing to fight for him is such a powerful thing and it's making the biggest difference right now."
Those interested in helping the Cerda family with Jaden's medical expenses can do so here.
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