On a particularly warm Saturday in January, Long Beach resident Velina Velasquez, 42, made her way out of her home and into the loving cheers of her family in Eastside Long Beach, who were bringing awareness to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints of Velasquez and approximately 1.5 million other people in the United States.
Velasquez smiled through her protective face covering as she saw Cancer Fighters, a community organization started by her niece Nellie De La Cruz at the age of 10 in 2020.
With support from her family and friends, De La Cruz and the rest of the Cancer Fighters team bring awareness to diseases and health conditions after their own family was personally affected.
They also do random acts of kindness, such as donating meals to frontline workers at St. Mary’s Hospital and distributing gifts to children during the holidays.
At its Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness event on Jan. 6, Cancer Fighters honored Velasquez, who was diagnosed with RA two years ago.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease where a person’s immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake and causes swelling in the affected parts.
RA attacks the joints, usually many at once, most commonly affecting joints in the hands, wrists and knees. Some of the effects of joint damage can include chronic pain and a lack of balance. RA can also have an impact on other tissues in the body and can cause issues in the lungs, heart and eyes.
The Arthritis Foundation states that there are approximately 1.5 million people in the United States who have RA, with women being three times more likely than men to develop the disease. In women, RA tends to begin between the ages of 30 and 60-years-old.
Velasquez was diagnosed at the age of 39.
“It just crept up on me, I didn’t know until one day I couldn’t get out of bed,” Velasquez said. “A lot of people don’t know about it.”
She finds herself having to explain what RA is and the pain involved to those who ask about her health.
The road to her diagnosis was not an easy one. Doctors were initially unable to tell her what was wrong as her pain grew.
“The first year was the hardest because [doctors] didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Velasquez said. “They couldn’t find anything wrong with me and I was going back and forth to the doctors and they kept saying ‘we don’t know’ and finally my sister [told] them ‘no, we’re not leaving until we know what’s wrong with her’ because at that point I couldn’t get out of bed.”
The pain was so excruciating it would bring Velasquez to tears. After her diagnosis, it took her four months before she was able to walk.
“I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I was in a wheelchair, it was so hard, it was the worst pain I’ve ever been through. I’ve never had pain like that and when I finally got to walk, it felt so good just to take two steps.”
Much like that Saturday afternoon, for months Velasquez has been front-and-center in supporting Cancer Fighters, where her son Capone Magallanes has had major involvement with his cousin De La Cruz, spearheading a movement to help others.
RA doesn’t just affect the individual physically enduring it, it also affects their loved ones and support system.
“For me, it’s my family, it hits us bad,” Magallanes said. “There’s some days where it would affect her really bad and just to know there’s no cure makes people think ‘oh, i’m going to give up now,’ but we’re here to spread awareness and show them there’s people that do care for you and are really trying to find a cure for you.”
RA can be treated and managed with medication(s) and “self-management strategies,” the CDC states. Treatment can include the use of medications that slow down the disease and averts joint deformity. Additionally, people can manage RA with self-management strategies that reduce pain and disability.
“I got my kids and I don’t want them to see me in pain,” Velasquez said. “They always ask me ‘mom are you okay? And I tell them yeah, I’m going to get there.’”
She added, “I know I have to get up and when I get up I start my day off, it’s hard but I get through and when I get through it, it makes me proud to know that I can do it,” Velasquez said, emotions evident in her voice.
Velasquez’s sister, Nellie Lopez, cheered and asked cars to honk for the cause. Lopez stayed steady by her sister’s side, often tag-teaming to hand out the blue and purple cellophane goodie bags to honking cars.
“My sister, she’s always there for me, all my sisters, my other sister, my older sister, she helps me also, but I do get through it,” Velasquez said of her support system. “I’m always telling people ‘you know what, you can do it too.’ This may not be the biggest thing out there, but for me it’s big.”
“[Today] is [us] saying you guys are not alone,” Lopez said. “We want everyone to be aware [that] just because someone has a way of living [they’re] not always good on the outside.”
Velasquez’s brother, David Maez was also on site handing out goodie bags, cycling from Wilmington to Long Beach to support his sister and family.
“I had to come out here and be there for my family,” Maez said, overcome with emotion about the difficulties his sister and family have had to endure. “I would be lost without my sister.”
The event was led by De La Cruz and Magallanes, who despite having a long week of classes, enthusiastically cheered to cars passing by, their voices being some of the loudest.
“We try pushing our hardest because on Fridays we just know ‘tomorrow there’s going to be more smiles,’” De La Cruz said of her driving force.
“We’re pretty much healthy,” Magallanes added. “We’re good, we’re trying to share with other people and get more people to join us and help other people that are fighting and survivors to let them know that there’s people who actually want to help and you’re not by yourself.”
The support from family, friends and community members who drove or walked by didn’t go unnoticed.
“Knowing that [Velina] has [rheumatoid arthritis] and she has support between our family and friends, it means a lot,” Edgar Magallanes, Velasquez’s boyfriend, said. “Everybody needs support, without support you can’t move forward.”
And forward Velasquez is going.
“Once I get there it’s like ‘don’t stop me because I’m on a roll right now, watch out, I’m going,’” Velasquez said through a smile about her progress.