Surviving cancer: Finding hope and passing it on

By Carolyn Kimmel

Max James can’t recall many of the darkest days of his cancer battle, but one is unforgettable - when his family gathered around him as a priest gave him last rites, and an inexplicable calm overtook him.

“I remember fading out, and I knew the end was coming, but there was an assurance that surrounded me in that moment,” he said. “I don’t know if it was something spiritual, but at the very least, it means that the love, care and affection that we all have for our loved ones is sensed and felt in the last moments of life.”

Coming face to face with death is nothing the now 25-year-old Lancaster resident would wish on anyone, but it gave him a gift - a gift he says that makes it possible to connect with families undergoing similar experiences and to share his story with those who find what he went through hard to imagine.

Facing an unexpected challenge

Max was a sophomore at Berks Catholic High School in Reading when he began having night sweats, a racing heart and noticed his stomach had swelled. On Jan. 5, 2013, a day after his 16th birthday, Max was in the emergency department at Penn State Health St Joseph Medical Center. A CT-scan showed abnormal buildup of fluid in his abdomen and colitis, prompting a transfer to Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

An ultrasound revealed intussusception - an intestinal obstruction - and exploratory surgery yielded a diagnosis of Burkitt lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that is highly aggressive but also very treatable.

Max underwent five rounds of chemotherapy that kept him in Penn State Health Children’s Hospital almost continuously for five months. He endured side effects, such as sores from the base of his throat to his stomach lining, complications that took him close to death and treatments that gave him back his life.

“My mom slept on the couch in my room, and my friends made a rotation schedule for visiting,” he said. “The staff was so kind and caring. It’s their job, but it’s so much more - they all gave their hearts.”

Using the bad for good

Now nine years free of cancer, Max continues processing his experience through journaling, writing, poetry and fundraising. Max realized soon after treatment that surviving cancer is a milestone that would change the course of his life.

“My mindset in the beginning was that if I hadn’t gotten cancer, someone else would have, so I had to be strong,” said Max, attributing that conclusion to growing up with “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” stories that featured a character thrust into darkness to fight his way out. “As a 16-year-old, that was a very fortifying idea to me.”

Max has since realized that he didn’t deserve or “need” to get cancer more than anyone; the disease is random in its allotment of suffering. Yet not every part of the process is so arbitrary. Each decision on the journey helped toward healing.

“Cancer may be random, but our actions as people are not,” he said. “I wanted to take control of the narrative that was my cancer journey and use it to help others. By using cancer, I am growing past my cancer and learning something new about myself every day.”

Giving back

Max earned a degree in communications and creative writing from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he organized the Golden Gamers, a service organization that brought gaming enthusiasts of all kinds together through events like Extra Life to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) hospitals.

The students and associated alumni groups have raised more than $60,000, which they allocated between Penn State Health Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Max also began telling his story at mini-THONs and other Four Diamonds events.

After college, Max worked in communications for a state senator and a mayor before realizing his heart lay in fulltime fundraising for the hospital that saved his life. He’s currently associate director of digital fundraising for CMN at Penn State Health and program director of Extra Life – and still telling his story to encourage patients and their families.

His compassion to help others is one way Max turned cancer on its head and stripped it of its power to cloud his future outlook. 

“In the beginning, I was asking, ‘Why did I get to live?’" Max said. “I will always be working to find that full and complete answer, but being able to fundraise for the hospital that saved my life and meet these families in the process provides enough of an answer for me.”

Survivor Max James has turned his battle with cancer into a passion for helping children with the Children's Miracle Network. More photos

Read more stories about our pediatric cancer survivors on the Children’s Hospital website.