Max Merget is no stranger to beating the odds -- the 18-year-old Salem High School senior has battled brain cancer four times in his young life.
Max was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma -- a large malignant tumor in the dominant, left side of brain at 3 years old. He underwent surgery and treatment at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor. The tumor came back a year later when he was 4-years-old and again at age 7. Then, after 10 years of being cancer free, doctors found a small pea-size tumor in Max's brain this past January.
After undergoing his fourth surgery to remove the tumor, Max is living his life just like any graduating senior - with one small twist. He used his graduation party at his home in Canton as a fundraiser for brain cancer research.
"Mott, they've given me so much, this is just the minimum that I can give back," Max said. "It's not that I have to, it's that I want to. And I know the research is going to be done right and I think it will make a difference. If it's buying a laptop with that money versus towards putting it towards research to help out the kids at Mott, then it's not even a question to me."
Max's party raised $10,000, making the total funds raised around $20,000 since January. That's not counting online donations through Max's website Max Your Brain.
Fighting an ongoing battle
"There's no time frame for this cancer," Max's father Rob Merget said. "It was 10 years. We thought we were done."
Max's mother, Nina Merget, said this most recent relapse was the most difficult one.
"Before, we had kind of gotten into this routine where if something happens, we make a decision and we run with it," she said. "This time Max was aware of what was going on - he was in on the decision-making and all the meetings. It was like him going through it for the first time, so it was hard for us as parents - it was like us all going through it for the first time together. Which is not something I want anyone to do."
Max said that this time around, he finally realized everything he had been through.
"Everyone in my family - no one wants to talk about what I went through - it's not a conversation topic," he said. "So when my cancer returned, everyone was telling me all this stuff. I valued my life so much more the fourth time around."
Beating the odds
Max has overcome more than just cancer.
Surgeons had to cut through the part of Max's brain that regulates fine motor skills and speech in order to get to his tumor. After surgery, Max needed occupational and physical therapy. He also needed to wear a leg brace to keep his foot from turning in.
Max also developed a form of dyslexia. But through it all, he has retained a positive outlook on life.
"It's all frame of mind you know, why be negative about life?" Max said. "I've been through so much and I've had a lot of success. I've had to relearn a lot of things. A lot of things can happen in life - you don't know when or where it will get you - you just got to keep going."
Partly because of his own experiences, Max spends time volunteering at his old elementary school with at-risk students with disabilities. During his time there, he helped teach a first-grader how to skip.
"He had motor function issues," Max said. "So I taught him how to skip. They had to do it in gym class, but nobody showed him how so he always felt left out.
"That was really moving to me - I always tell people, but I don't think they catch on," Max said. "That was me when I was younger - not with skipping per se - but I was always different from everybody else. I helped this kid out, and if I didn't do it, I didn't know who would or when they would. It just made me feel like I made a difference."
"Max has always stepped up for kids with special needs. When other kids would make fun of them, he'd step in and stop it - all of his teachers told us," Nina Merget said.
"It's because I beat the odds," Max added. "I can get up and move around. If you looked at me, you wouldn't know. But if you ever heard me read out loud, you would think, 'what's wrong with this kid?' So I can stand up for other people."
Max will attend Grand Valley State University in the fall and wants study area of medicine or medical sales.
For more information or to donate to Max's cause, visit www.maxyourbrain.org.