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Cancer took her hair, but not her smile

Simmons, 9, hopes to take in soccer tourney

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Cancer took  her hair, but not her smile

Riley Simmons, a fourth-grader at Colony Oak Elementary and a defender with on the Benfica ’03 girls soccer team, has begun the months-long battle against brain cancer. Her cheery disposition, love...

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POSTED January 8, 2013 11:31 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO – Her hair is gone and the road to recovery is still long and uncertain, but the smile persists.

Leave it to a defender – hard-nosed and tough, by nature – to laugh in the face of adversity. To scoff at the opposition. To teach a community how to combat cancer.

That’s Riley Simmons, a central figure on the Manteca Futbol Club’s Benfica ’03 girls team. She’s greeted each challenge in her recovery from brain cancer with charisma and style.

“That’s the one thing that’s never changed,” her father Rick Simmons said. “She’s been in great spirits the entire time. Never stopped laughing. Never stopped smiling.”

Simmons began her second week of radiation and chemotherapy treatments on Monday at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, her home base for the next 13 or so months.

The fourth-grader at Ripon’s Colony Oak Elementary had surgery to remove a large tumor positioned between her cerebellum and brain stem on Dec. 4.

For about 10 days, she was unable to speak. After her speech returned, her hair started to fall out.

“She said she was shedding,” Rick laughed.

Riley’s humor and humility spared Rick and Gina from a very difficult, very adult conversation. The two worried privately about how they’d present their daughter with the option of shaving her head.

After all, she was 9 – and vulnerable.

Then, when it came time to have “the talk,” Riley stopped them short with a smile.

And then she giggled.

“Here, my wife and I were gearing up to have this talk, and when we went to tell her she started cracking up,” Rick recalled. “I didn’t know if she was trying to cry and had forgotten how to. She let us know she was laughing, picturing how she’d look without hair.”

Her humor hasn’t been the only saving grace.

Support has poured in from the community. There have been raffles, car washes, dinner benefits, oversized cards and anonymous donations. A fund-raising campaign was established online – www.gofundme.com – to help the family with medical costs and living expenses.

To date, $13,470 has been collected.

 “We’re in awe, humbled … I don’t know what superlative to use. It’s been absolutely amazing. I can’t even put it into words,” Rick said. “It’s really lifted our spirits.

“Things were going downhill” after we learned of her brain tumor, he added, “but then we started hearing about all these things coming out of the community. They were like little miracles and things started to turn the corner.”

Her soccer family has sprung into action, too. The Manteca Futbol Club will host a tournament in Riley’s honor Saturday at Woodward Park. Thirty teams have registered for the 6v6 Shootout, and all of the tournament’s proceeds will go to the Riley family.

“It’s hard to see a family go through what they’re going through right now,” Manteca Futbol Club administrator and Benfica ’03 coach Manuel Pires said. “Our MFC family has come together to help them with prayers and the needs they have. We’re very blessed to have a lot of support in our club and community.”

Riley, whose favorite soccer player is U.S. goalie Hope Solo, hopes to take in a game or two at the tournament. She’ll need her doctor’s clearance, though.

“She was tickled to find out there was a soccer tournament in her honor,” Rick said. “She just lit up; a smile from ear to ear.

“She misses her team so much. We’re hoping it works out that she can get out there and see all of her friends.”

The feeling is mutual.

Her team practiced on Tuesday evening, and Pires says her absence can be felt.

“It would almost be like a miracle to see her on the sidelines. I know the girls miss her. She’s such a great kid with a lot of friends out there,” he said.

“She has a unique passion for the game. You don’t always see that in kids her age. She always has a smile on her face.  She’s teaching a lot of us how to handle a situation like this.”

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