Friday, August 6, 2010

A Story That Changed My World

My name is Max Vokhgelt. I am currently a student at Ohio State in my second year studying Biology and I am doing the Pre-Med track with aspirations to become an oncologist at some point down the road. Life for me so far has been good, but I've also had to face quite a few really big struggles. Let me explain: I am a proud survivor (so far anyways) of cancer, specifically Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.) I was diagnosed January 30th, 2009 started treatment the 3rd of February, and have been in remission since the 19th of February of last year. Now while I'm sure that many of you reading this have heard your fair share of cancer stories, I won't make this just another cancer story blog but I do want to share the specific parts of my story that have changed my thoughts, beliefs, and how I see myself in this world.
The first thing that I want to mention is the day I was diagnosed. I was 17 at the time and if you asked me what a bone marrow biopsy was for or what oncology meant I couldn't have told you. It's not that I was stupid but I could tell that something bad was going on because I was really tired most of the last few months and I was going to the doctor a lot more than usual. I think it was a conscious choice on my part to ignore what was going on. The day I heard the news was a Friday like any other Friday, I had gotten a bone marrow biopsy a few days before, I woke up and I took a shower and then when I got out I saw my dad who told me I could sleep in until my doctor's appointment. Now this may not sound out of the ordinary to some people but my dad always wanted me in school and if I had an appointment that was after 1st period period he would tell me to attend that period then he would pick me up for the doctor's. So him telling me this with a sad look on his face was where I really started to get scared. I ended up going to school. All during calc, my thoughts were completely eating me, "Where had I heard the word oncologist before, what is really going on right now, why might my cell counts be lower?" Then about half way through that class I realized, in about 30 minutes I'm about to go to the doctor and I might find out some serious shit. Right before I left I told my good friend Rachel that I was about to find out whether or not I had "The Big C" (at the time I was so scared of cancer that I couldn't even say the word). Then I got in the car with my dad and drove to my oncologist's office. When we got there we talked for a few minutes and then my doctor told me the results of the bone marrow biopsy, he said something about how my bone marrow had stopped making healthy cells and that they "found extraneous cells..." As soon as he said that time froze, it was almost like a movie where everything went in slow motion. My stomach just dropped, my brain and thoughts exploded and I knew what no one wants to know, I HAVE CANCER.
At that point I became completely sad and lost and just had no idea what was going to happen. While I say I was sad, it was not too long before I came to a quasi-acceptance phase. I realized that cancer was something that happened to me that was beyond my control and that if I accept it in my life I will be a happier person than if I let things I don't control take over the way I live. While this was my theory, in practice it was a lot harder to pull off. At that time I found that by telling myself that I wasn't really sick and chemo was just like antibiotics that I had to take to get over a bad flu. Then I went on in my ignorantly blissful way mostly smiling and sometimes forcing myself to smile but for the most part happy.
Then in March of 2009 I hit what you might call a "little road bump," I had a stroke. The stroke was chemo induced and happened on both sides of my brain so I became completely paralyzed from the neck down, unable even to hold my own tongue in my mouth. They gave me a feeding tube which if you don't know is a tube that they stick through your nose into your stomach (I know, terrible right?) The stroke was really hard for me and really hard for my family and it was the point in my battle that they were overwhelmed, if only for a little, and broke down. I want to say that I do not blame them at all and love my family very much and respect them for being so strong and supporting during my battle but there really is a limit to how much a family can handle and I understand that. Honestly, seeing my family break-down emotionally was one of the hardest parts of my cancer battle. But by some miracle after only about 5 days I made a complete recovery and to this day have no residual effects (knock on wood).
My stroke taught me a lot. It taught me that life is very fragile because you can take a nap one day and then wake up and not be able to talk or walk. It also made me stop complaining. Every time I am doing chemistry homework or start getting caught up in who thinks what of me and small things like that I remind myself that I can walk and I don't have a tube in my nose going through to my stomach and it brings me back and makes me realize I’m not off that bad. I really don't take the gift of the ability to talk for granted anymore. That perspective helped me move past missing my senior prom because of my hospital stays. But the stroke also scared me to death. It forced me to think about the fact that there's a chance that it might not be okay in the long run and that I really am sick and death is a real part of my life. Which in turn, led me to be quite depressed. Though I still pretended to play it off like I was happy because my friends were all impressed by how strong I was and I didn't want to let them down I guess. So, on the outside I seemed happy but inside I had an overwhelming sense of fear.
This brings me to the last part of my cancer story, my experience with First Descents. First Descents is a non-profit organization which provides outdoor adventure camps for young adult survivors. Over this past summer I went to camp twice for one week each time and I can easily say they were the 2 best weeks of my entire life. The first camp I attended was a kayaking camp and the other camp was for rock climbing. To keep this long story a little shorter I won’t go into details exactly about my actual experience in the water or on the rocks, but suffice to say when I got home I bought a kayak and am currently on the hunt for a good pair of rock climbing shoes. While the outdoor adventure was fun First Descents was really the best week of my life because of all the people that I met there and the emotional bond we shared. When I got off the plane and to the camp I was assigned a nickname and told not to use my real name for an entire week, it was Hammer. There were about 15 campers and 15 river guides/counselors. Even though I did not know anyone’s names during the camp (I learned them afterwards) I made true lifetime friends that I can count on in the short time I was there. I think it is because it was the first time I had ever done anything with other survivor’s and it was great to tell a story about chemo and instead of get a look of pity (that was the norm that I had become accustomed to at that point), I would receive real sympathy and an “Oh yeah I hate when that happens.” Also we bonded over the actual challenges we faced at the camp. In the rock climbing camp we climbed to huge heights together completing a 200 foot summit the last day of camp. It was amazing to see because one camper Acrylic, had most of her vision robbed from her by her battle with cancer yet with a little help from the counselors, a lot of persistence, and a lot of cheering from fellow campers even she made the climb! It was awesome to see everyone admit that they were scared but still go for it anyways. This idea was a huge part of my experience too and possibly the reason I picked up kayaking. When placed in the river the only way to go is the way the current pushes you. This is a pretty good analogy for life because it is always moving forward. And sometimes in the river you come up on rapids, which are scary, full of rocks which can hurt you, and seem like too much to get past; and that happens in life too, for me with my stroke and cancer. In the river you realize pretty quickly that there aren’t any ways to back out of the rapid but just different routes/lines to take through the rapid to get you safely to the other side. Again like life my stroke was not my choice, cancer was not my choice, but they happened to me and I have no way to back out. But if I choose the right line to get through or in regards to life, the right attitude, I will come out on the other side of the rapid/problem okay. I realize that I may not come out of cancer physically okay but by facing my problems and accepting it for what it really is I am at peace, and that’s good enough for me. First Descents and the river gave me practice in facing my fears and conquering them.
When I got back from the camps I really took a good look at what cancer meant to me. I came to the conclusion that it is something I should be scared of. But I also realized that being afraid is okay, just as long as you are comfortable with and find ways to adapt to that fear. There are days when I feel tired for a few days and I get scared and wonder if I relapsed. But I do not live with constant fear because I looked what scared me in the eye (cancer), and I said I’m okay with you. And as the river moves my life keeps moving forward too. Even though I don’t know what the future holds for me First Descents showed me how to make the right paddle strokes in life or adapt to whatever comes my way. I truly love First Descents.
If you want to support this awesome organization and help them help people with cancer regain control of their lives, the link is below. You don’t have to donate a lot, just whatever you can 2, 5, 10, or 100 dollars all donations are welcome! If you donate thank you and if you can’t right now donate when you can please, they don’t ask for much. Also if you know any people between the ages of 18-40 who have cancer please refer them to FD at Thank you again for listening to my story.

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but is the presence of fear and the will to go on"


  1. Awesome story wishing you the best success in life. You have an incredible spirit. It is awesome for you to share this with everyone for sure.I had a great time at camp with you and hope some day to have a rematch at ping pong with you

  2. People can donate money at I tried posting a link but it didn't work

  3. Thanks for your story, Max. I don't share a lot of experiences with you, being I only survived one of the "easy" cancers, but the awakening to reality you described as you were being diagnosed really reminded me of my similar experience at that stage.

  4. Great blog post Max! Even though I've heard you talk about this before, there were still new details and parts that I loved reading. It is great that you feel comfortable sharing your story with others and you're great! I hope you get to keep up with First Descents like you plan!

  5. Hi Max! I was In your Chem 123 class this summer :). I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story with all of us. You have such positive spirit and it is really inspiring. Keep it going and I wish you nothing but health and happiness!