Carmel Valley family raises funds to fight childhood cancer

By Kristina Houck

Max Mikulak was sitting in the nurse’s office, eating his lunch through a feeding tube, when a kindergartner came through the door in tears. The young girl had fallen on the playground and scraped her knees. Though just a year older and very sick, the first grader comforted the girl and gave her a hug.

That’s how Melissa Mikulak remembers her son.

“That’s the kind of kid he was,” said Mikulak, whose family has lived in Carmel Valley for 11 years. “He was very compassionate for others. Maybe it was because of all of the pain he had gone through himself.”

Max died from neuroblastoma in 2008.

Although he lost his four-year battle with the childhood cancer, his compassion lives on through Max’s Ring of Fire, a nonprofit organization Mikulak and her husband, Andy, founded after their son died at 7 years old. Through fundraisers such as the Run to Fight Children’s Cancer on Oct. 26 at NTC Park at Liberty Station, the organization supports innovative neuroblastoma research and clinical trials.

Nearly 800 runners and walkers participated in the recent event, which was started by Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University two years ago and has since raised more than $200,000 to aid in the fight against childhood cancer. The 5K, one-mile family run and survivors’ walk raised funds for both Max’s Ring of Fire and The Ronan Thompson Foundation, another organization dedicated to finding a cure for neuroblastoma.

“It was heartwarming to see all these people come together, but it was also heart wrenching that we even had to be there to try to raise money to fund research for childhood cancer because government doesn’t give enough and the big pharmaceuticals don’t give enough,” Mikulak said.

Max’s Ring of Fire supports the Neuroblastoma and Medulloblastoma Translational Research Consortium. Led by Dr. Giselle Sholler, the group of 18 universities and children’s hospitals is headquartered at the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Michigan and offers a nationwide network of childhood cancer clinical trials.

Born on June 30, 2001, Max was diagnosed with stage IV, high-risk neuroblastoma in October 2004. After treatment, he relapsed in November 2006 and entered a trial in Vermont headed by Sholler. His disease diminished during the trial until there was just one tiny spot still evident on his spine.

Unfortunately, the cancer aggressively returned in February 2008, and Max died on Aug. 31, 2008, only six days after starting second grade at Solana Highlands Elementary School.

“We support [Sholler] with all the funds that we raise so that her clinical trials can be supported 100 percent in all the hospitals that carry them,” Mikulak said. “We try to fund relevant research so that other families, hopefully in the very near future, will not have to suffer the loss of a child. There’s truly no greater pain than losing a child.”

The organization’s largest fundraiser is Touch A Truck, a car show where children can touch and honk the horns of racecars, military vehicles, public safety vehicles and more. More than 6,000 people attended the fifth annual event and raised $67,000 in June.

About 200 volunteers staffed the event, which a committee planned throughout the year, Mikulak said. She noted that the organization is always looking for more volunteers so Max’s Ring of Fire can fund even more research.

In the U.S., about 13,000 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year. There are about 700 new cases of neuroblastoma in the U.S. every year.

“When you think of the many it’s hard to act,” Mikulak said. “But when you think of one, it’s easy to be inspired.”

For more information, visit