On a beautiful weekend in South Brunswick the signs of a new season were evident, as children outside took advantage of the final weeks before winter makes its official arrival. But for the Dominguez family of Kendall Park, the changing season brings no sense of renewal, as a courageous little boy begins a new fight with a familiar foe.
Eight-year-old Brandon Dominguez has been battling brain cancer since December last year. Once his fight began, Brandon's bravery inspired the entire South Brunswick community to unite and support a family facing an unimaginable struggle, all for a precocious child who has touched so many hearts.
"Brandon is a very friendly and outgoing person who makes everyone laugh," said Brandon's mother Sharol Dominguez. "Everybody loves Brandon. All the teachers want Brandon in their class, but it's Brandon's choice. He's just a very friendly, positive little boy."
The world of the Dominguez family changed forever in September of 2010, when Brandon suffered a seizure. A tumor was soon discovered and Brandon had brain surgery. On Dec. 29, Brandon was diagnosed with brain cancer.
"I just cried and cried for a very long time," Sharol said. "We don't get cancer in my family. I don't understand how he got it. It just doesn't happen. We hardly ever got sick."
Soon thereafter, Brandon began chemotherapy treatments at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, five times a week for five months.
"He gets down sometimes and he gets tired of spending all this time in the hospital, but he handles it," Sharol said. "He has so much courage."
Brandon, a happy kid with a wide smile and infectious laugh, said the hardest part of his ordeal thus far has been missing precious time playing with his buddies at school.
"I told my friends what happened. I told them I had a seizure and that I was diagnosed with cancer," Brandon said. "I miss talking to them and hanging out with them."
As the youngest of the five Dominguez children, Brandon's illness has helped bring a close-knit family even closer through a shared hardship.
"It's tough for them when they see Brandon sick and suffering, when he can't do regular things he used to do and he struggles to get up and down the stairs," Sharol said. "But it's brought us all closer, because we all just want to help Brandon."
Even with health insurance, the cost of transporting Brandon to New York five days a week was overwhelming, running between $400 to $500 in travel expenses each week.
Sharol said she had no idea how the family was going to pay the escalating cost of Brandon's treatment. It was then that a community united behind the Dominguez family.
Brandon's classmates and the staff at his school, Greenbrook Elementary School, began raising funds through a program called . Students, parents and staff purchased small paper bears for $1, which were then decorated and taped to the walls of the school. It wasn't long before the other schools in South Brunswick joined in the fundraising efforts to help the Dominguez family.
Thousands of dollars began to pour in from schools throughout the district. The Crossroads North Garden Club planted a flower garden for Brandon to enjoy. When Sharol's old car could no longer make the trip to New York, the KPS/Princeton Garage fixed it. Following that, Brad Benson Auto gave the family a van that now carries them back and forth for treatments.
Confectionately Yours, Buffalo Wild Wings, Tastee Subs and Innophos of Cranbury all held fundraisers for Brandon. in addition to the Hugs for Brady Foundation, and last week's annual . But closest to the hearts of the Dominguez family came the fundraisers and support of the South Brunswick High School wrestling team.
Brandon's older brother David wrestled at 135 lbs. for SBHS last year. David said he was touched by the actions of his teammates, who showed their solidarity behind the Dominguez family by all . Brandon was also made an honorary captain of the squad.
"It was cool," Brandon said with a smile about the wrestling team's red hair. "The guys looked crazy."
For David, the support of his team left him touched and inspired.
"I was honestly speechless by it, I never expected that everyone would do it," David said. "At the end of the day, it really just shows who's there for you."
Soon thereafter, David had a moment of pure magic at the District 20 wrestling tournament, when After winning the title, David ran over and gave his brother a big hug.
"It was just a lot of mixed emotions," David said. "I went in trying to win it for him and I did it. It was amazing, there's no feeling that can replace it."
Volunteers also donated their time and money to help convert a bathroom in the Dominguez home to fully handicap accessible, which allows Brandon to go to the bathroom by himself.
For the Dominguez family, who moved to South Brunswick from New York City seven years ago, the support of the community was extraordinary.
"I was never expecting this kind of support, coming from New York City," Sharol said. "It's not even support, it's love. The love people have shown for us. It's amazing what the South Brunswick community has done for us to not have to worry about the little things. Friends have become like family and I feel like we're all in this together because everybody is with us. Without their support, I don't know what we would've done."
Brandon returned to school at the beginning of the year, but was only able to attend for about a month before his health kept him homebound.
"Brandon needed that, he was really looking forward to going back to school," Sharol said. "He had everything laid out before the first day of school ready to go."
Once Brandon couldn't go to school himself, Greenbrook brought school to him. Instructional support teacher Lori Woods brought Brandon a donated iPad 2 that connects Brandon to his classroom.
"Ms. Woods brought me an iPad 2 that lets me talk with my friends and see what they're doing," Brandon said. "I missed my friends and teachers. I like to sit and talk to them and to hang out with them again."
Even with frequent visits from his friends, and his best friend Colin, Sharol said the ability for Brandon to see his classmates while they're in school made a huge impact on him.
"When he was able to connect with his class again Brandon's face just lit up, it was so touching," Sharol said. "It's interactive, it lets him be as much a part of the class as his friends. He can talk to them and it's like he's still with them. Brandon's school just goes above and beyond for him."
After months and months of chemotherapy, Brandon's original brain tumor shrunk by 92 percent of its original size. But last Tuesday, Brandon suffered a setback when a new tumor was discovered on the stem of his brain. The new tumor has largely impaired Brandon's vision in his right eye and has made movement on the right side of his body difficult.
Yet even in the face of a battle against another tumor, Brandon remained the same brave boy, ready for a fight.
"When the doctor told us I thought why is this happening, I don't understand," Sharol said. "But Brandon looked at me and said 'don't worry mom. I'm going to fight this tumor just like I fought the other one and we're going to be fine."
Set to begin heavier chemo treatments for the new tumor within the next few weeks, Brandon remains positive and happy, quick with a smile as he looks forward to his upcoming 9th birthday on Dec. 2. Brandon recently got to visit with Buddy Valastro, the star of the TLC series "Cake Boss," to design his own special birthday cake.
"Meeting the Cake Boss was like a dream come true for Brandon because he loves to cook, bacon and eggs are his specialty," Sharol said. "They asked Brandon what kind of cake he wants and if he wanted an animal design or something on it. But Brandon said he wants a cake with a cancer ribbon on it."
When asked if he could have anything in the world for his birthday what it would be, Brandon smiled and shrugged.
"I just want a cake from the Cake Boss," he said.
After close to a year of battling a hideous disease, Brandon said he is grateful for the help from so many in South Brunswick, and for the new friends he has made along the way.
"Thank you to everyone for being there for me and helping my hopes," he said.
Outside the Dominguez home on a beautiful fall day in the late afternoon, the sun slowly began to set behind autumn trees, as shadows grew longer across the yard. Inside the home, a courageous boy rested his head on his loving mother's shoulder as she held her son close, each moment a gift.
"We just have to take things day by day because we don't know what the future holds," Sharol said. "But we're going to fight this all the way through."
Anyone wishing to donate to help with expenses can send a check made out to the Dominguez family to Greenbrook Elementary School at 23 Roberts Street, Kendall Park, 08824.