Thursday, September 2, 2021
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Canada
Globe Content Studio
Canadian snowboarder and Olympic athlete Max Parrot had to put his life and career on hold when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Now, he’s sharing his story to help other young people living with blood cancer
In 2018, Max Parrot was living his dream as a professional snowboarder. He had just won an Olympic silver medal in slopestyle in PyeongChang, South Korea. He regularly travelled to destinations like Colorado, Switzerland, Japan and New Zealand for competitions and training.
Then, in October 2018, he felt a two-centimetre-long lump on the left side of his throat. He wasn’t sure how long it had been there.
“I had to go to the Yukon and China for a couple of weeks for training and a competition, so I didn’t have the time to go to the doctor,” Max recalls. “I wasn’t too worried because when I’m about to get a cold, it’s normal for me to have swollen [lymph] nodes.”
By the end of November, the lump was still there. The day after he returned from his trip to China, Max went to his doctor who ordered an urgent biopsy. At that time, his doctor told him it could be cancer, which was a shock for Max. There was a chance that he could die.
“The first thought I had was for my career,” he says. “It’s my job, my dream, my passion. It’s what I love to do. I’ve never even missed a contest for an injury before.”
The biopsy confirmed that Max had stage two Hodgkin lymphoma – a cancer that affects the lymphatic system – in his upper body. Max’s doctor told him that he had an 85 per cent chance of surviving. “I felt lucky,” he recalls. “It was definitely pumping me up and giving me good vibes to cure it.”
In early 2019, Max started chemotherapy, every two weeks from January to June. His doctor told him it was a good idea to stay active during his treatment, which was a relief for an athlete like Max.
“I would still go a little bit to the gym and do some really small workouts,” he explains. “I went snowboarding a couple of times during the winter, but I would do two laps and I would be exhausted. My legs would be burnt and I wasn’t even going into the park and doing tricks.”
As Max’s chemotherapy progressed, he felt more and more drained of energy. By the end of it, he wasn’t able to do any sports and was spending most of his time in bed.
Thankfully, he responded well to the chemotherapy. Three weeks after his treatment ended, Max went in for testing and found out the cancer was gone. “My body was all clear,” Max recalls. “That was definitely the good news.”
Unique challenges for the young
While a blood cancer diagnosis can be difficult for people of any ages, it can affect younger individuals in a different way, says Karine Bilodeau, a research nurse at the Université de Montréal who specializes in caring for young adults with cancer.
“You’re not supposed to think about death when you’re in your [teens or] twenties,” she notes. “You used to think the future is infinite and that you can achieve anything. But now you have to go to the hospital for treatments. It’s really challenging.”
Some people with blood cancer are still in school or they’re just starting families, Bilodeau notes. Young people may have fears about missing schoolwork and social activities. They may have concerns about dating, intimacy and pursuing their chosen careers. They may feel self-conscious about changes in their appearance or abilities, and have reservations about interacting with friends during or after treatment.
“It’s very shocking to have blood cancer because you have to put your life on hold,” Bilodeau adds.
To help young people feel confident while going through blood cancer treatment, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC) created an AYA (Adolescent and Young Adult) national advisory committee to prioritize their needs. A new AYA-focused website will be launching this fall, featuring a blog, information and numerous resources for young adults, including information about peer support. As well, the LLSC has created a webcast series specifically for young people, including a candid conversation with Max Parrot. Another of the webcasts discusses returning to work or school after treatments. Bilodeau notes that while some people may think life returns to normal after cancer, it’s not always so simple.
A change in outlook
Almost immediately after being told his body was clear of cancer, Max Parrot set an ambitious goal for himself – to win a gold medal at the X Games in Norway in August 2019, which was just two months away. He gradually resumed his training routine to regain his strength, and the hard work paid off. Max won the snowboard big air gold medal.
“I felt really happy,” he recalls. “It just felt good to be out there again, [and] winning the medal was the candy on top.”
And while that victory was a career high for Max, he says that having blood cancer has changed his outlook on life. He recalls how, when receiving the cancer diagnosis, his first thought went to his career.
“I would have loved, at that time, to think about something else than just my career,” he says. “Even though snowboarding is my passion, there’s so much more in life.”
Nowadays, Max says that his life has a better balance. “I used to say ‘yes’ to everything before and have a really, really busy schedule,” he says. “Now I take a lot more time for myself.”
While he continues to train for the upcoming Winter Olympics set to take place in Beijing, China next year, Max also makes time for other pursuits. He is co-owner of Montreal restaurant Brasserie Moderne No 7, and he is an avid volunteer for the LLSC. He recently recorded a podcast for the LLSC website where he talks about his blood cancer experience, in the hopes that his story can help others in the same situation.
And, most importantly, he’s living life to the fullest.
“I don’t take life for granted anymore,” Max says.
Listen to Max Parrot’s podcast and more AYA content here.