Benjamin Daniel, father of Max, now 11, takes a look back at what the family refers to as "our interesting summer vacation" and the battle to save Max's life. Max was diagnosed on June 9, 2010, with a brain tumor called anaplastic meningioma. He underwent surgery to remove the tumor at a children's hospital near their New Jersey home and then traveled to Houston for proton therapy radiation at MD Anderson. Here, Max's dad details their journey.
It was July 2010, and 10-year-old Max, with his mom Renee and grandfather Mike, were packing up their hotel room in Houston, folding and putting away socks, shirts, shorts and gifts from well-wishers. They were leaving behind Houston and MD Anderson and the whole scene, heading for a vacation from a summer filled with all things cancer: headaches, a brain tumor, surgery and proton therapy.
They'd learned more about anaplastic meningiomas than any non-doctor had a right or reason to know. MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center - its men, women and machines - had become family, brothers and sisters helping Max battle his - their - cancer, and win.
Texas, meanwhile, had plenty to offer during their stay. There was the Astros game in what Max called "a stadium with a roof, Dad!" and the Dallas Cowboys and historic Dealey Plaza - past and present together with a brain tumor that was now, thankfully, barely there.
Moving forward, looking back
"We drove halfway across the United States!" Max exclaimed, wide-eyed and amazed, and we did. Before Houston there was Louisiana, no stranger to sorrow, all flat blacktop, trees swaying in humid breezes, Max asking "was this where the hurricane hit? Did it flood here?" over a traffic-crowded bridge and the mighty Mississippi River beneath a cloud-gray sky, that much closer to Houston, but not there yet.
Before Louisiana, Mississippi rose in the windows and we stopped to eat. People asked, "Where you headed?" and Max would say "Texas!" "What do they have here, Dad?" "People," I said. "Moms and dads, sons and daughters and Southern cooking."
It rained in Alabama. But Max didn't complain at all during our trip. He was, and is, a brave boy. My hero.
We saw Georgia and highway signs for the university, nearly halfway to Texas, and more Bulldogs, peaches, beautiful sleepy trees and clear skies. Max took his medicine and stared thoughtfully from the window.
We smelled a fragrant Tennessee, wind whipping past our windows. Max's head was healing from the surgery, filled with fluid. He would touch it absently. "It's squishy," he'd say, wondering if his head would get its old shape back.
We left Virginia, spending hours on its highways, stopping to eat at Red Robin, a favorite restaurant. Maryland came and went, all toll booths and other cars sailing past. Delaware, too.
At the starting line
Home is New Jersey, where all of this began, with the successful removal of a cancerous tumor, and assurances from Max's surgeon and pediatric oncologist that everything was going to be all right.
It really began, though, with a trip from Voorhees' Virtua Hospital in New Jersey, a scary ride in an ambulance to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It was there that we first saw the tennis ball-sized growth where Max's brain was supposed to be on the MRI scan. We were overwhelmed and fearful for our son, but ready to face this head on as we learned that we were headed to the MD Anderson in Texas for proton therapy.