Commencement is a time for blue skies and boundless tomorrows. You don’t expect speeches about cancer.
But when Senior Class President Michael Fisch praised the courage of Morristown High School classmate Max Feldman, his boyhood best friend, nobody in Mennen Arena was happier than Max.
“It made me feel really good,” said Max, whose world turned upside down on March 10 with a diagnosis of testicular cancer.
Overnight, a happy-go-lucky 17-year-old was forced into adulthood. His cheerful demeanor and willingness to share his story have inspired all who know him.
Teacher Brian Vagnini and student Kevin Montes interviewed 50 MHS students and faculty members about what makes them happy, and dedicated a video to Max.
“The first thing this did was make me realize any problems I’m having are not really problems at all, just little obstacles,” said Mike, whose earliest memory of Max is from a Little League game.
Max was daydreaming at first base and a throw thumped off his head.
These days, Mike’s old friend seldom complains about the curve ball life has thrown him.
“Max made the best of the situation,” Mike said. “He taught a class, a health class, on testicular cancer. He wanted everyone to know about it. He looked at it as more an opportunity than a burden. That says a lot about who he is, and about life, looking at life as opportunities, not obstacles.”
‘HE HAS ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY’
The morning after Max was diagnosed, surgeons removed the cancerous testicle. While classmates were looking forward to the prom and “Senior Cut Day,” Max was enduring two excruciating rounds of chemotherapy.
“It was horrible, one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had,” Max said. For about a week after each series of treatments, “anytime I looked at food, I got sick.”
His hair fell out. He lost weight. Technicians performed “every body scan you can imagine,” to see if the cancer had spread. So far, so good; more test results are due soon.
Doctors told him things could have been worse.
“They said another week, and I would have been in a whole different boat,” said Max, who wants to start a support group for other young men with his rare form of cancer.
Only one in 10,000 people under age 21 get any kind of cancer, and only 4 percent of them–two kids in a million–get the germ cell type that Max has, according to his physician, Dr. Steven Halpern, medical director of hematology and oncology at the Valerie Children’s Center in Goryeb Children’s Hospital, at the Morristown Medical Center.
If detected early, this form of cancer has a cure rate of nearly 100 percent, the doctor said. If not, it can spread to the lungs, liver, bones and brain. Cyclist Lance Armstrong won that uphill battle after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“We’re very, very optimistic that Max is going to be fine,” said Dr. Halpern.
Max said he wants to speak at more high schools to urge boys not to ignore symptoms, as he did for a year.
“Be conscious of your body,” Max advised. “Any lump or anything on your body, go to a doctor. These days very few things are incurable if you catch them early.”
He had chalked up his lump to a riding injury. Since the eighth grade, he has spent every spare moment riding horses and working at the Seaton Hackney Stables in Morris Township. He plans to attend Hocking College in Ohio this fall to study to become a farrier. Show jumping is out, for now.
Dr. Halpern said Max is setting an important example; typically, this kind of lump is embarrassing for teens to discuss with parents or doctors.
“To be told you’ve got cancer at 17 is an incredibly scary thing to go through,” the doctor added. “He is very upbeat about the whole thing. He did a lot of reading, and knew a lot more about this cancer than most people his age.”
Max said his teachers were understanding when his treatments kept him from classes. They gave him as much work as he could handle, while appreciating that emotionally, “I couldn’t get into what was going on in English books, because I was thinking I might die here.”
Brian Vagnini taught Max throughout high school and called him unique. His energy and “original outlook” made him enjoyable to be around, the teacher said.
“I can truly say I have seen him grow up from someone unsure of how to handle himself to a mature young man who is able to take real life issues in stride, and take them on with a smile.”
Principal Linda Murphy had a similar take.
“He is an upbeat young man, always smiling and makes you smile when you are around him,” she said. “He has always been this way.”
That goes for commencement night on June 23. Though still too weak for the Project Graduation after-party, Max had enough energy for a senior class prank– slipping coins into the principal’s hand during the ceremonial handshake.
“Max, how did I know you were going to be involved?” Linda told him with a giant grin after Max gave his two cents.
After the Little League game with the unfortunate throw–tossed by Mike Fisch’s dad–the Fisches and Feldmans became friends. Mike was a regular at Max’s pool. The boys played ball, built toy trains, and did all the other things that buddies do in grade school.
By the time Max and Mike reached high school, their interests had diverged. Max liked working with horses. Mike captained the soccer and tennis teams, and joined the Future Business Leaders of America.
Mike heard about Max’s diagnosis at a party.
“I had to sit down,” Mike recounted.
A couple of days later he visited Max. Everyone has a Max story, Mike likes to say. But this Max was different, rattling off names of doctors and explaining exactly what was coming next.
“I was impressed by his knowledge–but also by his maturity,” said Mike, who already is at Washington University in St. Louis, where he anticipates majoring in business and psychology.
Mike got Max’s blessing to cite him in the graduation speech. But Max was not shown an advance copy.
The speech took more than a month to craft; Mike said he lacks the extemporaneous gifts of his father, Gary Fisch, known for his online videos for Gary’s Wine & Marketplace.
Mike’s words were simple and sincere. His boyhood pal, the kid who had trouble keeping his head in a ballgame, had taught him to focus on what really counts.
When Mike finished, the Class of 2011 gave a huge cheer. Max looked at his mom.
“I saw her really happy,” Max said.
Glancing around Mennen Arena, he began to realize the tight weave of this community’s fabric.
“It was the first time I saw how much it affected everyone around me,” Max said of his situation.
“Then it sunk in. That one of my best friends from my early life, it still affected his life. It rekindled our friendship. That’s a good thing.”