Less than two weeks after he had his head shaved to raise money for cancer research at his school fundraiser in Park Ridge, Illinois, last year, 12-year-old Benny Martinez ended up in the emergency room with a terrible headache and nausea while vacationing with his family in Orlando, Florida.
After a CT scan of his brain, doctors gave his parents some startling news: Benny had a walnut-sized tumor in the back of his brain that required immediate surgery.
And that wasn’t all.
After a seven-hour surgery that left him unable to walk, talk and swallow due to a rare side effect called posterior fossa syndrome, it was confirmed three days later — on his dad’s birthday — that the tumor was cancerous. Benny had medulloblastoma — the most common type of childhood brain cancer.
“I thought they must be joking,” says Benny, who has regained much of his speech but now speaks slowly. “When I found out it was real, I got pretty scared.”
Because he had shaved his head at the fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation days earlier, he knew exactly what his parents, Ed and Michelle Martinez, meant when they told him that he had cancer. Benny’s main concern, though, was that he was ruining his family’s Walt Disney World vacation.
“He’s the kind of kid who is always worried about others and how things are affecting them,” Michelle, a 48-year-old economist, tells PEOPLE. “He has a big heart.”
So she and Ed, a real estate broker, weren’t surprised when Benny decided that he’d like to have the majority of proceeds from benefits held in his honor (including one planned for April 1), donated to St. Baldrick’s to help fund research for childhood cancers, with a goal or raising $100,000.
Now tutored at home until he has regained more of his mobility and can rejoin his friends in the seventh grade, Benny says he prefers life on the “giving” side.
“I want to do whatever I can to help kids going through the same thing that I am,” he tells PEOPLE. “I know it’s hard, and I’d like to tell them not to give up any time soon. I’m not giving up. I want to walk again.”
Although it’s too early to say what Benny’s future may hold since he’s only halfway through chemotherapy treatment, “We’re hopeful that with rehabilitation, he’ll continue to get stronger,” says Dr. Larissa Pavone, Benny’s doctor at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center.
“There is nothing easy about what Benny is going through,” she tells PEOPLE, “and yet he handles every challenge with a wonderful spirit, maturity and optimism. He’s a remarkable, intelligent and funny kid with an old soul.”
Now using a walker instead of a wheelchair, Benny hopes to soon resume his favorite hobby of pie-baking and challenge his brother, Christian, 16, to video games.
“Through it all, he’s stayed positive and touched many lives in spite of facing several setbacks,” says his dad, Ed. “It’s been difficult for him to lose his independence and rely on others to do things for him. But he’s making good progress, determined to make a comeback.”
And when his hair grows back after chemotherapy, his family won’t be surprised if Benny decides to “go bald” again.
“If it helps someone, sure I’d have my head shaved again,” Benny tells PEOPLE. “Losing your hair to help find a cure is worth it. I really like giving back.”