Not Letting Cancer Define Us

It is how we face obstacles that define us and those obstacles can vary in size or matter. They can be trying to hit a curve ball in Little League, passing a math test or as common as trying to curb your appetite so that you can shed 10 pounds. Sometimes in life, what seems to be an obstacle is not. If you face these small obstacles with positive focus and bravery, the so-called obstacle will never define you -- in fact, you can actually define it.

In May of 2007, my son Max was diagnosed with a rare form of B-Cell Lymphoma never before seen by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It was rare and it was stage 4. The doctors were blunt that without immediate treatment, consequences would be devastating. At the time, we lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and just blocks from the hospital. I walked past it for 15 years never having been on the inside. When the day came that we were told that our son needed to go there, my life and perspective changed forever. That was five years ago. Being told 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. Thankfully, today my son Max is 9 years old and is cancer-free.

In 2008, we started The Max Cure Foundation for pediatric cancer causes. We have raised close to $2 million for pediatric cancer. Our mission is to fund the development of less toxic treatments for children battling the disease and assist low-income families with a child who has cancer. Knowing firsthand that having a child with cancer can be very difficult and stressful, we have recently launched a program called Roar Beyond Barriers. We go beyond the barriers that are preventing low-income families from receiving the best for their child who is fighting the disease. We provide financial and emotional support for these families.

When my son was first diagnosed, I told him, "It is how we face obstacles that define who we are." I remember when he lost his hair, we bought him a new baseball cap and he refused to wear it. At that moment I realized that Max, at 4, was not about to let the cancer define who he is. In the weeks following his diagnosis, I wrote a letter dated June 20, 2007 to family and friends alerting them to Max. This letter raised more than $200,000 for our newly formed pediatric cancer research fund established at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I closed the letter with one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson and ended it with a quote of my own. Both quotes have defined me over the past five years...

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Redefining the word brave, Max valiantly goes to the hospital and takes his medicines every single day, as he undergoes this highly aggressive treatment. He is a beautiful little boy, both inside and out, who makes an enormous effort to continue to demonstrate both his usual happy demeanor and youthful exuberance that he has always had. As a whole, we are trying our best to keep things as normal as possible for him. That being said, we are realists and know the road that lies ahead will be long and difficult. Believing in the power of positive thinking, I am confident we will beat this disease and Max will live a long, healthy life.

Children are resilient and hopefully years from now, he won't remember the treatments he underwent or the pain he endured. Life, in its unpredictability, can sometimes work in mysterious ways and unexpected events can change one's course or direction instantaneously and without warning. Speaking from a firsthand perspective, it is important to see the reality of this horrific disease and understand that it can inflict any child and his or her family at any time.

Every day I am amazed at how my son's diagnosis led me on this journey. While it has been a very difficult path and one filled with a lot of tears and emotions, we as a family 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."

David Plotkin is the co-founder of The Max Cure Foundation for pediatric cancer causes.