GREELEY, Colo. - The scar that runs from behind Cesar Madera's left ear, down his neck to below his front jaw, is barely visible anymore.
The scar that the Ann Heiman Elementary School fourth-grader carries in his memory from the surgery that created it nearly five years ago to save his life is as visible as ever for the 9-year-old.
"I hate the hospital. The food is terrible. Sometimes I want to ask, `Why me?' " Cesar said. "I don't want kids to know. I don't want to be treated differently."
The different treatment Cesar got just a few weeks ago, however, made the youngster feel better than he had in a long time.
It's been a tough past four years for the Madera family.
When Cesar was 4 years old, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He underwent surgery immediately to remove his thyroid and several cysts that built up around his throat. The family's medical insurance paid the bills, but the continuing radiation treatments and the unknown weighed on the little boy.
"When it first happened, he asked my sister if he was going to die," said Cesar's uncle Chris Garcia.
The family made it through. Although Cesar is considered to be in remission from the cancer, and it has not metastasized, he still takes radiation treatments periodically to shrink cysts that grow.
During the summer, however, the family experienced another setback. While in Mexico on vacation in June, a bus driver who was texting while driving crashed near-head on into a semi-truck near Valparaiso, Zacatecas, Mexico, Garcia said.
Cesar, his two siblings, mother and father were in the seats in the front of the bus. Cesar broke his leg and was in a full body brace for several weeks. His mother, Noemi, who was pregnant, nearly miscarried from pulling the rest of her children out of the bus.
Cesar's father, Cruz, is still having surgeries to repair mistakes made by Mexican doctors, and the family doesn't know if its insurance company's attempt to sue the bus company will ever happen since the bus driver took off and has yet to be found. Mexican authorities are of little help, Garcia said.
"Before they would do anything they would always ask, `Who's going to pay for this?' " Garcia said.
The night of the crash, they wanted to leave Cruz, who broke his femur, tore his femoral artery and had to receive multiple pints of blood, for dead, Garcia said. But Noemi's insistence and a promise to pay for the extrication finally convinced them to pull him from the wreckage, Garcia said.
But for a small amount of time earlier this month, all that was wiped from Cesar's memory when he, his sister Jaqueline and Garcia traveled to Pittsburgh to meet members of Cesar's favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kids Wish Network, sent the family to Pittsburgh after the family learned of the program through the music teacher at Heiman. The program grants children with cancer wishes.
A guide from Kids Wish greeted the family at the airport and guided them for the three-day trip. Cesar received gifts from Hertz, a local restaurateur, the Steelers and others along the way.
The owner of a Mexican food restaurant where they had dinner one night arranged to get a football autographed by legendary Steelers wide receiver Franco Harris and delivered by Harris' son to Cesar while he was at the restaurant. He came home with Steelers pillows and blankets and footballs and bags and everything imaginable, including a football autographed by the entire team.
"I'm in between happy and sad," Cesar said. "I got to meet all the Steelers, so I'm happy. But I'm sad this all had to happen to do it."
While in Pittsburgh, along with meeting Troy Polamalu, Ben Rothlisberger, Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers' team, he got to sit in club seats for the Steelers game against New York Jets. He visited the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Carnegie Science Center and the Heinz History Center.
"Everywhere we went they were just so nice," Cesar said.
The highlight of the trip, Cesar said, was the 15 minutes he spent talking one-on-one with Polamalu, who because he was injured and not practicing sat and talked with Cesar about football and, of course, his hair.
"How do you get your hair so fluffy?" Cesar said was the one question he has always wanted to ask him, and the first he did. "He said with good shampoo. I didn't get to talk to all the Steelers, but I did get to see all the Super Bowl trophies. That was pretty cool."
Garcia said he will never be able to thank everyone enough for giving his nephew three days of positive memories to replace the ugly one's that have filled most of his life.
"It was the most unforgettable trip," Garcia said. "I will be grateful to these people forever."