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Mission Vets’ Ibarra inspired many through his battle with cancer

February 5, 2017 GMT

MISSION — The only post Mission Veterans junior Abraham Ibarra left on his Instagram is a photo of him shooting a basketball, wearing a Patriots uniform. The caption reads “Aspire to be an inspiration to others. #WeAreAllCapableOfGreatness.”

Ibarra, 16, died Jan. 12 after a battle with Burkitt lymphoma. He left a legacy that his family, friends and community will remember. The Ibarra family dealt with a lot of pain, hard moments and sacrifice from the time he was diagnosed, but Abraham remained positive. He had down times, sure, but he always found a way to have hope.

After Abraham received a second round of chemotherapy, he was given the news that it hadn’t helped his condition, and that the doctors had no more options for treatment. That day, Ibarra lived up to the words in his Instagram post.

Abraham’s mother, Araceli, wanted to get his mind off of the bad news, so they headed to Denny’s for breakfast. When they pulled into the parking lot, Abraham spotted a homeless man by the front entrance. Abraham asked his mother if he could give the man all the money in his wallet, $2. He was excited to do so as they walked in, but Abraham couldn’t get his mind off of the homeless man.

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“He said, ‘Can we buy him a meal?’ And I was like, ‘Sure,’” Araceli said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you go ask him what he wants?’ And he wasn’t sure about his Spanish, so we practiced what to say, and he went and asked the man what he wanted. He came back and he said, ‘He doesn’t want breakfast, he wants the turkey dinner that is on the sign in the window with an orange juice. Is that ok?’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ He was excited. He couldn’t wait to take the man the food.”

After the homeless man ate, Abraham wanted to help him some more. Abraham bought him clean water (the same brand Abraham liked) and gave him more money. The man thanked Abraham.

Abraham was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma on June 1. Araceli feared it was cancer when she drove past the McAllen Pediatric Cancer Center on the way to Abraham’s different doctors’ appointments, but she prayed it wasn’t.

The diagnosis took several weeks, even though the Ibarras rushed Abraham to a doctor immediately after they found a lump on the back of Abraham’s neck.

Burkitt lymphoma is a very rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that targets the immune system and quickly spreads to the brain and spinal fluid, according to WebMD. In the latter stages, Abraham had tumors on his spine that stripped him of feeling in his lower extremities. Globally, Burkitt lymphoma accounts for 1 to 2 percent of adult lymphoma cases. In the United States and Europe, it accounts for up to 40 percent of pediatric lymphoma cases. It is treatable if discovered quickly, but rapidly fatal if left untreated, according to WebMD. When Abraham was diagnosed, he was in Stage 3.

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The chemotherapy helped Abraham at first, but just five days after receiving his last round of chemo, the tumor returned and was growing faster than before. He received several more treatments. His family sought any possible remedy, whether it was vitamins, herbal supplements or clinical trials. Araceli looked at hospitals from Boston to Tijuana to Germany. Many were expensive and none offered a guaranteed solution.

Abraham was a normal child growing up. He was teased by his older brothers and he teased his younger brother. He was always playing outdoors. But more than anything, Abraham loved to make people happy. He always had a one-liner ready.

His first sport was basketball. He relished the opportunity to be on the court.

His younger brother, Kameron, 10, remembers going to the mall with Abraham and the family. Abraham always had his eye on the shoe line of his favorite basketball player, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

In elementary school, Abraham had what the family affectionately referred to as a “chunky phase.” That gave him the motivation to focus on his health. He dedicated himself to working out and eating healthy.

The people who knew Abraham best knew he was always in the gym, lifting weights. At first, it was just a way to improve his physique and hone his basketball skills, but then he found the world of bodybuilding.

Abraham played on the freshman basketball team his first year at Mission Veterans. During his sophomore year, he saw many of his friends make the varsity team, but he was on the junior varsity team. He began the season as a starter, but later in the year he found himself coming off the bench. At that point, he seriously considered bodybuilding full time.

“At the end of his sophomore year, he had mentioned to me that he was thinking of stopping basketball,” Abraham’s older brother Brandon, 21, said. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m a second-string JV player. I’d rather just work out. I think I’d be better at that.’”

Once he fell into that world, he scoured the globe looking for people to follow. His favorite bodybuilder was Cody Montgomery. Montgomery is the youngest International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness professional. Abraham would regularly follow posts from Montgomery with diets, workouts, supplements and recipes. He and his brother Brandon would send each other those posts and follow the regimens together.

In the end, he decided he couldn’t give up the game he loved, basketball.

“A week before he got diagnosed, he had said, ‘No, I’m going to go back to basketball, because I love basketball,’” Brandon said. “He had even talked to Coach (Romeo) De La Garza, the varsity coach. They had talked it over. He was going to work his butt off to make varsity.”

When Abraham was granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, his first thought was meeting Montgomery or James, but something held him back. He wanted his whole family to be a part of his wish. He asked for a trip to New York for himself, all of his siblings and his parents.

He wasn’t healthy enough to be outside for much of the time during the four-day trip, but he did see snow for the first time. He was also there for a planned trip to the Statue of Liberty.

“We tried to make it to the Statue of Liberty, but we missed it by two minutes,” Araceli said. “We got lost in the subway. Changing trains and stuff got us all messed up. We had never been to New York. We didn’t know anything about that.”

They could see the statue from land, and that was good enough for Abraham. He didn’t want his family to be discouraged, so he found a source of happiness.

“There was this guy, outside, selling gloves,” Abraham’s brother Andrew, 23, said. “They were the ones that allow you to text because they have nylon fingertips. He was like, ‘I’m going to get everybody gloves.’ And he did. He bought them all from the stand. There were seven of us, so he said, ‘Let me get six pairs.’ He said that because he had told me, ‘I’m going to get some for everyone but dad, because he is not a texter. Dad is old school.’”

Abraham isn’t a huge fan of the college basketball team the Duke Blue Devils, but Mission Veterans coach De La Garza is. De La Garza also works at a camp with legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. De La Garza gave Abraham a 2015 Duke Championship hat.

“When he was getting his treatments, he took a picture with the cap, which I thought was pretty cool,” De La Garza said.

De La Garza and Abraham formed a special relationship over the years. De La Garza is a big San Antonio Spurs fan and he would tease Abraham about his love of the Cavaliers.

“The last time I talked to him, I was still giving him a hard time about LeBron James and about being a Cavalier fan,” De La Garza said.

Abraham wasn’t just the first to the gym and last to leave. He was also one of the best motivators on the team. He made his teammates better. He would tell his teammates to just add a little more weight, or to spend more time in the gym. He would talk to teammates about diet and workout supplements.

“In the offseason for basketball, in the weight room, he would push me to get bigger like him,” junior Elias Ibarra (no relation) said. “He had a nice body, and he would push me to be like him.”

Abraham first started playing with Elias during the summer after eighth grade. They played on a club team called the RGV Soldiers.

Even when Abraham’s good friend was a starter and Abraham was a backup, he remained a helpful and faithful friend.

“Freshman year, we would always be together,” junior Joshua Acosta said. “He ended up being my backup, but we were always helping each other. If one of us made a mistake, we would correct each other.”

When Abraham was in Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the treatments he received were ineffective. His cancer had developed an immunity to chemotherapy. Instead of giving in to the overwhelming sadness, Abraham looked to help others.

“They had a library there. He would read to some of the little kids,” Brandon said. “He liked to read himself. There were kids there 2 or 3 years old. For him it was heartbreaking to see. He would say, ‘I’m over here complaining, and I’m 17. These kids are just 2 or 3 battling the same thing I am.’ I think that he enjoyed reading to them.”

His mother, Araceli, was a big source of hope and optimism throughout. Her sacrifice and love did not go unnoticed.

“My mother, she and Abraham, they are the strongest people I know,” Brandon said. “She had to watch him go through everything — the suffering, the treatment. She lost so much sleep, because Abraham would wake up in the middle of the night in pain. … She was always on point with everything. She knew when he needed his medications, everything like that. She was there for him with everything. She never gave up despite what the doctors said. … She was by his side through the entire thing. She is definitely an exceptional person.”

Abraham was an inspiration to many people, including his brother Andrew.

“He was a family guy,” Andrew said. “He cared about everybody before himself.”

He touched his teammates, too. After he passed, they pasted hearts with messages to Abraham on the gym wall. The team put a decal on the gym floor that reads “RIP Abraham Ibarra. 21. Forever Strong.” The Patriots have tried to carry on his memory throughout the year.

“This season we are trying to do as much as we can for him,” Acosta said. “When we found out about his passing, we all got down. But, we realized that we can’t put ourselves down. We have to use this as motivation, because we know he’s in a better place.”