A pile of old sneakers might not look like much to most people, but to David Plotkin, every pair represents one more step toward a cure for pediatric cancer.
Plotkin is the founder of the Max Cure Foundation, an organization that began to take shape on the day his young son, Max, was diagnosed with a rare form of B-cell lymphoma. It was May 2, 2007, the day before Max's fourth birthday.
Plotkin gave up a successful career on Wall Street to devote his life to fighting pediatric cancer, funding cures and easing the financial struggle for families with children battling cancer.
"That night, I made a promise to a higher power," Plotkin says. "I said I would dedicate my life to this mission and I promised Max that something good would come from his pain, but he had to fight. He needed to be brave."
Plotkin traces their harrowing journey to a beautiful spring afternoon. Instead of heading out to yet another business dinner, he took the suggestion of his wife, Annemarie, and went home to take their boys, Max and younger son Alexander, to the playground connected to their Upper East Side apartment building.
"We were playing baseball, batting and running the bases," he says. "Max fell rounding first and cried out in pain. We iced his arm, but the next day he was still in pain."
That fall would ultimately prove to be a blessing.
"If it hadn't been for that fall," Plotkin says, "we might not have discovered Max's cancer until it was too late."
An X-ray of Max's arm revealed countless black spots.
"We knew immediately that something was wrong," Plotkin says. "An orthopedic surgeon suggested a biopsy the following Monday. After a sleepless weekend of not knowing what to expect, the results confirmed that Max had B-cell lymphoma in the bone of his right arm. Typically, it is found in the lymphatic tissues or the lymph nodes. Soon after, we learned it had spread to his left knee. The doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering had never seen this kind of manifestation before.
"They were firm and to the point," he says. "Max needed immediate treatment or the consequences would be devastating."
So began an intensive two-year chemotherapy protocol that required Max to be in the hospital approximately eight hours a day, five days a week for the first full year.
"It's hard to explain to a 4-year-old," Plotkin says, "that the medicine that is supposed to destroy the boo-boo will also make you very sick. The side effects of chemotherapy are very harsh. In the short term, you lose your hair, vomit, experience constant nausea, suffer fatigue, aches and pains. In the long term, if the child survives, his mortality rate is 10 times greater because the immune system is essentially broken. You become more susceptible to developing other cancers and diseases. Today, Max is a healthy 6-year survivor, but we don't know what tomorrow will bring.
"Being told Max had cancer was the worst day of our lives," Plotkin says. "When told he was cancer-free, it was bittersweet. We became dependent on the chemo. It's like a tsunami. The chemo takes out everything in its path. You know the flowers will bloom again, but your biggest fear is that the weeds will grow back, too."
During Max's treatment, the Plotkins met Dr. Richard J. OReilly, chair of Memorial Sloan Kettering's Department of Pediatrics and chief of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Service, and Dr. Paul Meyers, vice-chairman of Pediatrics.
"We wanted to know what our options were," Plotkin says, "in the event the treatment for Max didn't work."
O'Reilly discussed his promising research into immune cell therapies. Then and there, the couple, along with Max's grandfather, started the Max Cure Fund (a precursor to the Max Cure Foundation) at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Its goal? To raise $5 million to underwrite a cell therapy lab dedicated to alternative treatments and researching cancers in children and young adults.
"Immune cell therapies," O'Reilly says, "are an exciting area of research that holds promise for future progress in developing more precise, less toxic treatments for children and adolescents with cancer.
"The Max Cure Foundation," he says, "has provided absolutely essential seed funding for the development of T-cells for therapeutic use. Their support also laid the foundation for other highly promising forms of immune cells – and we're now using these in patients. We would not have made these strides without them."
Plotkin refers to that lab as the "Last Hope Lab."
"When children are battling cancer and undergo these treatments," he says, "if they don't work, they need an alternative. There's only so much chemo and radiation you can blast these kids with."
Already, the lab has shown great success.
"Of the children and young adults being treated, 66 percent have shown tumor regression or are cancer-free," Plotkin says. "Obviously we want it be 100 percent but we are on the right path."
Since its inception, the Max Cure Foundation has raised $850,000 to support the lab.
"On the 9th floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, we were surrounded by people from all over the world," Plotkin says. "We shared one connection. We were there for our child and would do anything for that child, even switch places if we could. Pediatric cancer is the most underfunded of all cancer research. It's also the No. 1 leading cause of disease-related death among children."
The statistics are gut-wrenching. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 10,450 children in the U.S. younger than 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year and about 1,350 will die. Because of treatment advances in recent years, more than 80 percent of children with cancer will survive five years or more, but survival rates vary depending on the type of cancer.
"There are 16 classes of pediatric cancer, and within those classes, there are more than 100 subtypes," Plotkin says. "Sadly, pediatric cancer is treated with the same drugs used to treat adults. It's not profitable for the pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for childhood cancers. We are trying to change their tune and convince them otherwise."
To raise funding and awareness, the Plotkins began by putting on "Roar for a Cure" Family Day carnivals in East Hampton, N.Y., where they have a summer home.
"We successfully did this for five years," he says. "This event built the foundation for our foundation, but unfortunately, after five years of doing the same event, it's not fair to depend on the same people to support it. It becomes time-consuming, expensive and stressful."
The Plotkins are Max Cure's biggest donor, covering a substantial portion of the costs of the foundation.
"We put our money where our mouth is," Plotkin says.
They are rolling out new programs, fundraising initiatives and partnerships across the country that will help advance their ambitious two-fold mission.
"We are committed to raising money for research and for our Roar Beyond Barriers program," he says, "which helps families who are struggling financially as their child battles cancer."
To date, the Roar Beyond Barriers program has supplied gift cards for food and household necessities to 77 families in 21 hospitals in 12 states.
Plotkin's father, Richard, a former partner at Day Pitney LP who specialized in commercial litigation, retired in 2008 to focus exclusively on the Max Cure Foundation. Together, they created "Dunk Your Kicks," a no-cost (to the participant) initiative that facilitates the collection of used sneakers and, in exchange, receives monies from an international recycler to advance its mission.
"More than 200 million sneakers end up in landfills each year," Plotkin says. "Dunk Your Kicks is a massive pediatric cancer campaign. It protects the environment, introduces affordable footwear in emerging markets and creates thousands of jobs worldwide."
The Max Cure Foundation has held more than 400 Dunk Your Kicks events across the country since it started the campaign in February 2012 in Bergen County elementary schools. Since then, the innovative campaign has touched millions of people in person or through social media and collected more than 150,000 pairs of sneakers.
"Dunk Your Kicks has become a pediatric cancer movement across the country," Plotkin says.
The organization also partnered with Maine Camp Experience last summer.
"The kids," says Laurie Kaiden, Maine guide for the Maine Camp Experience, "were engaged and excited to learn about the Max Cure Foundation and talk about social action and how they can make a difference. They had fun Ôdunking their kicks.'"
This year, Plotkin is taking Dunk Your Kicks a step further, with plans to be at more schools, colleges, community centers, churches, temples, businesses, 5Ks and marathons across the country, while establishing partnerships throughout corporate America.
Plotkin, a communications major at Syracuse University, never imagined life beyond Wall Street, but he has since embraced his new calling, even taking to creative writing and songwriting with artist Tom Nieman to offer Max – and others – a message of inspiration, hope and encouragement. His debut album, The Journey (available on iTunes), benefits the foundation and is currently being developed into a musical and a children's book. Plotkin is also writing a work of non-fiction and a TV series, with Adam Gittlin, author of The Deal. He is also executive producer of a soon-to-be-released animated movie called Henry and Me.
In addition, Plotkin is the fonder of Be Brave 24, a family fitness challenge series set to debut this year to benefit pediatric cancer research. With business partner Sam Tobias, he recently launched Pivot Alliance Partners, a multi-industry advisory firm.
Since their founding, the Max Cure Foundation and Max Cure Fund have received revenues in excess of $2.5 million to advance its mission of funding research and helping ease the financial burden for families with children fighting cancer.
"For a small foundation," Plotkin says, "we have created a viable brand which is recognized nationally and is inspiring people of all ages to get involved and learn about pediatric cancer. We've taken a negative experience in our lives and have done everything possible to turn it into something positive. Max inspired us to take a stand against pediatric cancer. We are not just standing; we are fighting for all the children who are suffering. We will roar for a cure until one is found."