Playing for Dad

KC's Benally earns starting role after defeating leukemia

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

KIRTLAND, N.M., Jan 19, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Kirtland Central's Christian Benally (44) drives against Gallup's Skyler Haley (42) Jan. 5 at the 68th Annual Gallup Invitational in Gallup.

Christian Benally may not be Kirtland Central's leading scorer or vocal leader, but he does lead by example.

On the basketball court, Benally, 17, exhibits passion for a game he was forced to give up for two years. Off the hardwood, he owns a 3.1 GPA and is a motivational speaker for youth suffering from leukemia.

The pain of losing his father, who died of an unexpected heart attack in October 2008, and being subsequently diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January 2009, did not deter Benally from earning the power forward position on this year's Broncos basketball team.

"I love playing basketball," Benally said. "It's my outlet for what I have gone through."

Early in life, his late father, Lynn Benally, taught him and his three sisters the importance of playing defense and to "play hard and go up strong," he said.

"I play for him because he was always there when I was growing up," Benally added. "Whenever I made a mistake he would correct me. That is what I am missing now. I can't talk to him anymore of what I am doing wrong. It's a little hard."

6 weeks in the hospital

It's been a long journey for Benally as he was hospitalized the first six weeks following his cancer diagnosis, then underwent intense chemotherapy.

He then had to make weekly visits to doctors in Albuquerque and had bouts with depression over the last two years.

"It's been tough. It wasn't easy," Benally said. "My family and friends keep me going. The coaches encourage me to keep on going."

When first learning he had cancer, Benally said he was in disbelief and felt "dead in the inside."

"I was shocked," Benally said, adding he was still grieving from the loss of his father. "I was out for the whole season. I couldn't leave the house without a mask. My immune system was so low that if I caught a cold it could have been serious."

From the onset, his mother, Cheryl Benally, did not know how to react to her son's diagnosis after just having lost her husband three months prior.

"I hit rock bottom. I tried to be strong and look at what we have and try to understand ALL," she said as tears swelled her eyes. "One thing (Christian) told me, and he didn't even shed a tear, was that he was glad it was not one of his sisters."

Prior to Benally's diagnosis, Cheryl said she noticed her son complaining of hip and back pain, as well as increased sleep and weight loss.

"I really saw him struggling. I thought he would make his way up to varsity," Cheryl recalled, adding that after Christian played consecutive JV games during the Martin Luther King weekend in 2009 he experienced sharp pain in his right hip, and was eventually diagnosed at the UNM Children Pediatric Oncology Clinic that winter.

"The first six weeks was intense chemo," she said. "We had to stay in the hospital and I had to learn how to read labs, blood counts - it was a double whammy in those three months."

No point in feeling sorry

Asked how he had the mental fortitude to overcome his struggles, Benally said he did not want the cancer to takeover his or his family's life.

"I was kind of mad that it happened to me," he said. "I thought there was no point in feeling sorry for myself because it's not going to go away."

In addition to his mental toughness, Benally found strength in Christianity and traditional Navajo ceremonies.

"I believe in the Lord and at the same time my dad's parents are traditional," he said. "My grandma's church is always praying for me and when I go to church they are happy that I am doing well and that I beat the cancer. I've been to a couple of medicine men and they have helped me with my stress. I kind of follow both paths."

After realizing his situation, Benally became more active and started working out with his sister, Jessica, who played basketball at Gillette College in Wyoming.

As a result of his workouts, Christian regained strength and developed a new focus that has helped him earn a starting role for Kirtland Central.

When he is out on the court, there is no way opponents can stop Benally from what he does best: snatching the ball for a rebound, skipping a pass to an open teammate for an assist, or squaring up for a jump shot.

Even on the days he gets treatment, Christian still shows up at practice, a will power Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca calls "uplifting" for the Broncos, who are 7-9.

"There are times that he comes back the very same day from treatment and he's at practice," Zecca said. "I can tell because he's lethargic. Us coaches are amazed by it. He's a great kid."

Back in shape

Despite being sidelined for two years, Zecca said, Benally has showed perseverance with his improved physique and mental capacity.

"He lost a lot of weight. He's trim now and can move very well," Zecca said. "It's amazing how athletic he is. He works his butt off in the weight room and it shows with his jumping ability."

As for improving on his team's 7-9 record, Benally said, "We got to learn from our losses and mistakes and move forward. And try to be positive and not get down on ourselves."

Today, Christian is in the remission stage of leukemia and when he travels to UNM for checkups he makes sure those who need priority care go before him.

"He's a mentor when he goes to the clinic," Cheryl said. "He will be the last one in line and lets young patients go before him. He says, 'They're hungry. Let them go before me. They can't eat anything before their treatment.'"

According to his doctor, James McKinnell, Benally is in the final stage of treatment for leukemia.

"It is called maintenance therapy," McKinnell wrote in an email on Jan. 13. "He's been in this phase of treatment for a little more than a year and a half and has about four more months to go."

An interest in medicine

Since building a close relationship with his doctors and nurses at UNM, Benally has developed an interest in the medical profession, particularly the fields of physical therapy and nutrition.

"I am looking possibly at UNM because they have a good medical program," Benally said of where he wants to attend college. "I know the doctors there pretty well and I can shadow them."

When he becomes of proper age, or when his mother allows him, Christian plans to get a tattoo that marks the date he was diagnosed with ALL and the date he defeated it.

"I beat cancer and am proud to be a survivor," Benally said. "As I play basketball in honor of my dad, I also get motivation to play for those kids who can't play as they are currently in treatment.

"I couldn't have done it without the support of my family," he said. "I would like to extend my gratitude to the UNM Children's Pediatric Oncology doctors and nurses."

Benally, who is Bit'ahnii (Under His Cover People) and born for Ma'ii deeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass People), has been a guest speaker at golf tournaments for the IGW Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the Children's Hope Fund with the San Juan Medical Foundation.

"To me he's my inspiration," said Cheryl. "He said to me that cancer cannot run our lives, we got to run our own lives."

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