CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — Superheroes really do exist. For 4-year-old Max Kleckner, that’s a given. As he plays with neighborhood children whose families have gathered to celebrate his life, there are no signs that anything is out of the ordinary.
But the last four moths have been an extraordinary time for Max and his parents. After a series of ear infections and colds that he couldn’t seem to shake, doctors at Rady Children’s Hospital diagnosed Max with embryonic-type rhabdomysarcoma. A large tumor had formed near his right eye, causing it to seize up.
Further testing showed that the cancer had metastasized — spreading into his bone marrow — making it stage 4 cancer. The tumor was inoperable because of its proximity to the optic nerve and brain.
Max’s parents, Mark Kleckner and Natalie Young, were told that the survival rate ranged from 20 to 50 percent in children with the rare cancer.
Max believed his parents when they told him that his “superhero cells” were going to battle the “bad guy” cells invading his body. Just days after the initial diagnosis, doctors inserted a semi-permanent chemotherapy port under the skin in his chest. His parents said it was his “superhero port.” Max spent two weeks in the hospital undergoing his first round of chemotherapy and a blood transfusion.
“On day 19 is when his hair came out,” remembered Young. “Just clumps of hair.” She said every cough or complaint of fatigue is a red flag. “You become very sensitive to every little thing,” she said.
But Max didn’t seem bothered by any of the “bad guy” cells as he chased a friend. He displayed a Superman tattoo proudly on his forehead lest anyone forget he means business in his battle against cancer.
Intent on eradicating the cancer, Max’s family traveled to Houston, Texas, for six weeks of proton radiation therapy in a clinical trial at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Although they were evacuated during Hurricane Ike and feeling the painful separation from supportive friends, Young said Max responded well to the intensive treatment.
When the family returned to their home on the 2100 block of Montgomery Avenue earlier this month they found a stocked refrigerator, a clean house and signs welcoming them home. “It makes a difference having so much positive support,” Young said.
“You wouldn’t know he had cancer, would you?” Young asked as she watched her son around with a group of friends throwing hay into the air amidst Halloween decorations Oct. 17. “Each day is a gift,” she said with a smile.
The gathering was organized by neighbors Rae Martin and Kimberly Tilton-Riley as part of a series of fundraisers for the family’s escalating coasts associated with Max’s treatment. Although Max is insured, the cost of his treatment will exceed the $2 million lifetime cap sometime next year. “We’re not sure about what to do after that,” Young said.
“We want to let people know about Max and raise awareness about what he’s going through,” Tilton-Riley said. Halloween decorations lined the street and parents helped children carve pumpkins as the crowd grew by the minute. “They’re our family,” Martin said.
The close-knit community expanded as word of “Light Up Cardiff” spread. Dawn Taarud, a parent from Smart Start Preschool, which Max attended before his diagnosis, presented Young and Kleckner with a check for $3,200 raised by the families at the school. Brandi Lewis, a city employee who lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea said she read about the event and decided to show up. “It’s such a good cause,” she said. “I know people will support him (Max) however they can.”
“Light Up Cardiff” will continue as more families participate in decorating the neighborhood to create a festive atmosphere for Max.
Local businesses are getting involved as well. East Coast Pizza donated a portion of their profits over the weekend to Max’s family and a benefit concert and silent auction is scheduled at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Nov. 8 with Tim Flannery and Friends headlining.
For more information on upcoming events and opportunities to donate to Max’s battle against cancer visit www.maxspartacus.com.