The “blessings of a fall” is how David Plotkin describes that spring day in 2007 when his son Max, took a tumble and life turned upside down.
He and his wife, Annemarie, were outside with their two boys, Alexander, then nearly 2, and Max, who was just shy of his fourth birthday. David and Max were playing baseball, practicing batting and running bases. Rounding first, Max tripped and fell, clutched his right arm, and cried out in pain. Annemarie iced his arm but when the pain didn’t go away, she took Max to the hospital. There an X-ray of his arm showed something ominous: a spray of black spots where there should have been white, healthy bone. Annemarie called David, who rushed to the hospital. He remembers the fear that came over him when he saw the X-ray. The orthopedic surgeon told the David and Annemarie that it could be a bone infection or it could be cancer.
Five days later, on May 2, 2007, Max had a bone biopsy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The next day, Max’s grandfather, Richard, wrote an email to friends and family that began with this simple, powerful sentence. Today Max is 4 years old, yesterday he was diagnosed with cancer.
Eight days after the bone biopsy, David and Annemarie learned that Max had an uncommon form of B-cell lymphoma, a cancer so rare that the specialists at Sloan-Kettering, one of the top cancer centers in the world, had never seen it.
The grim news got worse. Typically, B-cell lymphoma is found in the lymph nodes and in the lymphoid tissues. In Max’s case, it had already spread to the bone of his right arm and left leg around his knee. The oncologists didn’t mince words. To survive, Max needed immediate and very aggressive treatment.
A few weeks later, Maxwell Grant Plotkin, David and Annemarie’s first child and Alexander’s big brother, began a harrowing and harsh chemotherapy protocol that would continue for two years.
David Plotkin chose to look for the good in this horrible situation. “Were it not for the blessings of a fall, we may not have found the cancer until it was too late,” he said.
How do you explain cancer to a 4-year-old? How do you explain the endless hospital visits, the pain, the port inserted into his chest so that doctors could give him a medicine that’s supposed to make him well but instead makes him feel sick?
When Max asked his parents why he felt so bad, David and Annemarie answered as honestly as they could. “We told him he had cancer and that the medicine was very strong,” David said. When Max asked, “What if the medicine doesn’t work?” his Mom answered, “We’ll find a stronger one.”
Soon after Max’s diagnosis, a doctor told David that he needed to help his son learn to be brave. “I didn’t know how to explain that to a 4-year old,” David said. “And then I realized that I couldn’t tell my son how to be brave, I had to show him.”
So the dad who’d never run more than a few miles in his life began training for the 2007 New York City Marathon. “I know that running the marathon pales in comparison to a child battling cancer, but I wanted to show him that anything is possible. I wanted to show him that it’s not about coming in first, it is about crossing the finish line at your own pace.”
David ran the marathon that November, and Max was well enough to be there with Alexander and Annemarie to cheer “Go, Daddy, Go.” He ran it the next year, too.
For David, Max’s diagnosis was the proverbial wake-up call. “Learning that my son had cancer made me rethink the life I had lived and refocus my attention and efforts on making a positive impact in his life and in the life of those affected by pediatric cancer,” David wrote in a blog post.
David and the family didn’t waste time. In June 2007, less than two months after Max’s diagnosis, the Plotkin family David, Annemarie and Max’s grandfather, Richard formed The Max Cure Fund at Memorial Sloan-Kettering to raise money to underwrite a cell therapy lab to advance pediatric cancer research and to develop treatment protocols for childhood cancers that are less harsh and have fewer side effects.
The stuffed lion that Max took with him each time he went to the hospital inspired the fund’s “Lion Max” logo. “Roar for a cure” became the new nonprofit’s motto and “Be brave” its mantra. With purpose, passion, and help from friends and strangers, the fund raised $250,000 in its first 18 months.
By December 2008, the Plotkins had decided to extend their efforts beyond their primary goal of raising money for research. “We wanted to give to other pediatric cancer causes,” David said.
To achieve their broader aims, they formed the Max Cure Foundation. Roar Beyond Barriers, one of the initiatives, provides financial and emotional support to families dealing with the stress and difficulties of pediatric cancer: families like the Regers of Staten Island, N.Y.
Kelly and Celina Reger have two daughters, Grace, 9, and Nicole, 7. Nicole has neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF 1), a genetic disorder that causes tumors, usually benign, to grow in the nervous system. In Nicole’s case, the tumors in her brain turned cancerous. She’s had multiple surgeries, and is now legally blind and needs a wheelchair. A social worker at New York University Hospital, where Nicole has been a patient for the past two years, referred Kelly to The Max Cure Foundation.
“We were going through a difficult time, living in a studio apartment with the kids,” said Kelly, 32. Max Cure brought clothes for the girls, helped the Regers secure a ground-floor, wheelchair-accessible apartment, and gives the family $500 a month to help cover food and necessities. “Last Christmas they brought gift for the girls,” Kelly said. “They are wonderful people. We feel blessed.”
David left his job in the finance to focus full-time on The Max Cure Foundation, channeling his creativity into coming up with new fund raising programs. Last year, he inaugurated the first Dunk Your Kicks event at the Smith Elementary School in Tenafly, N.J., where the Plotkins now live. Dunk Your Kicks asks kids to bring their used sneakers and dunk them into one of Max Cure’s collection bins. The sneakers are then sold to an international recyler, netting Max Cure about $1.00 per pound. All the proceeds go to fund research and support families.
In June 2009, two years after his diagnosis and his long, arduous chemo, Max went into remission. Daughter Ella’s birth made that milestone year even sweeter.
On Sept. 23, 2011, Max and his Dad went to Washington to address the Pediatric Cancer Caucus Childhood Cancer Summit. When it was his Max’s turn to speak, he walked calmly and confidently to the podium, climbed up on a chair to reach the microphone, and with his Dad standing by his side told his story to the attendees. He told them about his diagnosis, about being sick and throwing up. He told them how his brother, Alexander, gave him hugs. He told them that when his hair started falling out, he and his Daddy got their heads shaved. He told them that his family had a Foundation to help other kids so they didn’t have to suffer so much.
An estimated 12,500 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States. Pediatric cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children between the ages of 1 and 19. One in every five children diagnosed with cancer will die five years from the time of diagnosis. But the survival rates are going up. Today, there are more than 270,000 childhood cancer survivors in the U.S.
Max Plotkin, now 10, is one of those survivors.
Since its inception, The Max Cure Foundation has raised 2 million dollars for pediatric cancer research and to help families facing a child’s cancer. And David Plotkin has found his calling.
“I tried to go back to finance a couple of times,” he said. “It wasn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. Every day I am amazed at how my son’s diagnosis led me on this journey, and what this brave little boy has taught me about resilience and determination.
“While it has been a very difficult path and one filled with a lot of tears and emotions, as a family we have been inspired to make an impact and give back: On this road we travel and in this life we live, we are only going to get back what we are willing to give.”
For more on The Max Cure Foundation, check out their FB page.