Carrying their cross: Veteran makes trek for cancer awareness
October 01, 2013Ruben Loya wipes the sweat off his brow as he stops in the shade along Old Highway 395 right outside Valley Center early Monday morning. The active-duty Navy sailor takes a deep breath and then hoists the wooden cross back onto his left shoulder to continue on his arduous journey, one that he hopes can bring attention to the cause nearest and dearest to his heart, childhood cancer awareness.
"I had just returned from a tour in Iraq when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer," Loya said. "I had a lot going on in my life, back then."
Ruben Loya makes his way up Old Highway 395 near Valley Center on Monday. Loya is walking from his home in San Diego to San Bernardino to raise awareness of childhood cancers. Photo by Kim Harris / Valley Roadrunner
Loya's daughter, Christina, was diagnosed with a liver tumor known as undifferentiated embroynal sarcoma, a rare type of cancer in children. It was during her treatment that she met a young lady by the name of Jade Baeza who had been fighting leukemia.
"Jade went into remission and she really became a role model for Christina," Loya said. "To see someone near her age who fought that battle and won was inspiring to her."
Christina went through 10 months of chemotherapy then in May of this year received a liver transplant putting her into full remission. Shortly afterwards Jade's leukemia returned. It was at that point that Ruben Loya began to pray for guidance.
"He began to pray about it," Ruben's wife, Liz said. "Through his prayers the idea came to him to help her carry her cross."
Liz said that Ruben didn't know what helping carry Jade's cross meant at first. Eventually he came to the conclusion he needed to literally carry a cross from his home in San Diego to San Bernardino where Jade is currently undergoing treatment.
"We all thought, really? Are you sure that's what you need to do," Liz said.
"I just know this is something I have to do," Ruben said.
Carrying an 80-pound cross and a 15-pound backpack 110 miles was a daunting task for Loya who has nerve damage from a war injury in Iraq. He has made his way through San Diego, Escondido, Valley Center and, as of press time, Fallbrook.
At first he thought he could go 20, maybe even 25 miles a day, but when he got two blocks from his house someone stopped him and asked what he was doing.
"He takes the opportunity to talk about cancer awareness and one thing he likes to do is preach the gospel," said Liz. "He gets stopped several times a day but we know now the purpose is not about getting to his destination; it's about the journey."
Ruben says he has meant many people through his travels, people who have shared their stories of love and loss, people who have cheered him on and even some who have mocked him. But no matter what, he has no plans of stopping until he arrives at his destination, spreading awareness of childhood cancer and helping others any way he can along the way.
Ruben said one of the most inspirational moments of his walk came from a man who he simply knows as Larry.
"I met Larry earlier in the morning when we had stopped to pray over the cross of a car accident victim," Ruben said noting that Larry had left and come back bringing them bananas for a snack and opening up about the tragic loss of his son in a car accident.
"We prayed and he wrote his son's name on the cross. We stopped for lunch which was delivered to us by a member of the Black Sheep, a Christian biker group who has brought us lunch every day. Then after we ate, there was Larry again, this time with his wife."
After the group prayed together and talked more about the loss suffered by Larry and his wife, the 61-year-old man asked Ruben if he could carry the cross.
"After he went about 500 yards, I began to walk toward him to hand him his hat and take the cross from him," Ruben said. "He told me 'No, I'm not done.' He just kept walking with that cross. When he came to the hills, I thought he would slow down, but he just went faster. I think carrying that cross was Larry's way of finding peace with God for the loss of his son. Just being a witness to that event has been the most inspirational part of the trip."
Ruben said while the journey is sometimes hard he just looks at what his daughter went through for the inspiration to carry on.
"I just think to myself one step at a time," he said. "Christina went through months of grueling chemo and she pushed through. Jade is still going through it, and she pushes through. Countless kids go through this battle with cancer, so who am I to quit while they are still going?"
"I know for Ruben, he wants the focus to remain on the cause," said Liz. "He believes you can't give credit to the pencil for what the hand is producing. He believes he is the tool. He wants the focus to remain on raising awareness of childhood cancers. He is not by any means a hero."
For more information or to follow Ruben on his journey, visit www.facebook.com/#!/carrytheircross. Donations to assist Jade Baeza can be made online at www.youcaring.com/jadebaeza.
Correction: The original online headline accompanying this story incorrectly stated that Ruben Loya carried a crucifix. In fact, he carried a cross.