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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

'C' Battle

Story of Girl's Struggle More About Cancer Than Catches

November 10, 2000|PETE THOMAS

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — She came to this sun-drenched paradise looking for a different kind of battle, one waged from a fighting chair, not a hospital bed.

And on her first full day in Mexico, atop the beautiful blue ocean beyond Baja California's tip, Briten Douglas got her hooks into a spirited striped marlin that gave her the thrill of a lifetime.

"It was so much fun!" she said of the struggle, her arms weary and face flushed with excitement. "It was by far the biggest fish of my life."

Fishing for marlin was only one of the reasons the eighth-grader from Rincon Middle School in Escondido had come to Cabo. The other, far more important reason, was to "fish for a cure" as a guest of the 13th Pete Lopiccola Memorial Marlin Tournament.

Indeed, Douglas, strikingly beautiful despite all that she has been through, came to Cabo to carry on the battle against a deadly disease called leukemia.

It was this form of cancer that killed Pete Lopiccola, a popular skipper who succumbed two days before his 30th birthday.

Douglas, 14, has been trying to shake free of leukemia's grasp since learning, when she was 4, that 69% of her blood was cancerous. She has fared better than most. Her remission is in its ninth year and her future, it seems, looks as bright as a Cabo San Lucas sunrise.

And after her second full day in Mexico, in a banquet room with a breathtaking view of the same beautiful blue ocean in which she caught her first marlin, the intrepid young angler got her hooks into a large crowd that was just waiting to be reeled in.

By night's end, nearly $150,000 had been raised for the Pete Lopiccola Memorial Cancer Research Foundation at UC San Diego. An additional $50,000 went into a local fund for children requiring medical treatment their families cannot afford.

Wearing a bright red dress and sporting a smile that illuminated the auditorium at the Hacienda Beach Resort, Douglas stepped to the microphone and cast her story into a sea of people, stirring up their emotions and, in some cases, making them cry.

She told of the 10 1/2-hour surgery she endured the day she was born, to correct a birth defect called bladder extrophy. Her parents were told she might not survive the operation and that if she did she might have trouble walking and probably would live "a compromised life."

She lived through the surgery, spent several weeks in intensive care and eventually went home in a body cast. Her first steps, long after the cast was removed, were indeed shaky ones and they got shakier as she went.

Douglas suffered through one complication after another before finally being scheduled for major reconstructive surgery--which included bladder augmentation--to hopefully repair her insides once and for all.

But that had to be delayed when it was learned, the night before, that she had cancer in her blood: acute lymphocytic leukemia, a killer of tens of thousands annually.

Her father, John, acknowledged the devastating effect this had on the family, and on Briten's older sister Kirsten, in particular, but said the family never gave up hope that Briten would someday enjoy a normal childhood.

The reconstructive surgery was put off while Douglas spent the next few years enduring spinal taps, blood draws and chemotherapy treatments, losing her beautiful blond locks and bright smile.

"I got to meet and make a lot of new friends," she said of her fellow patients. "Some of those friends didn't make it through their fight with cancer . . . so I got to go to their funerals. Those sad days are something I will never forget."

Douglas eventually regained enough strength to undergo the reconstructive surgery, which because of unforeseen complications kept her in the hospital nine months instead of the predicted two weeks.

"I finally went home," she told an increasingly tearful audience. "The fight was as hard as my battle with leukemia . . . but . . . we won!

"By 'We' I mean all the teams of doctors associated with [San Diego Children's Hospital] and UCSD. All that time . . . you were doing your part. If you were down here in Mexico, fishing, you were doing your part.

"For Pete's Sake. That's why I can be here with you today."

*

Lopiccola was a widely known San Diego skipper who, like many who'd come to Cabo San Lucas before it became such a bustling resort city, fell in love with what during the mid-1970s and early '80s was a much wilder fishing frontier than it is today.

"We all loved Cabo dearly," said Cami Garnier, a close friend of Lopiccola's who eventually moved here and became one of the top local skippers.

Lopiccola's easygoing personality, his soft smile and dark eyes helped him gain the friendship of almost everyone he met.

These friends became deeply concerned after a day of fishing in 1987. The shout "Hook-up!" after a marlin strike brought Lopiccola scrambling down a ladder to clear some gear for his client. While doing this he cut his finger on a fishing line, and by the time he got back to the dock the finger had turned black with infection.

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