When Audra and Justin Wilford learned their then four-year-old son Max had brain cancer in 2011, they suddenly found themselves in a difficult situation. But rather than despair, they sprung into action, learning how to complement their son’s treatment and building a support system for themselves and other parents facing similar circumstances.
Wilford had no non-profit experience, but her background managing restaurants, along with some “persistence and grit,” helped her launch the MaxLove Project. Initially, she utilized her culinary knowledge and focused on nutrition.
“I thought that would be a powerful way to [intervene],” Wilford said of assisting her son. “Let’s start where we are and we’re all eating.”
Since she believes “food systems are out of balance with our health needs,” as seen by the fact that unhealthy, fast-food is often cheaper than produce, Wilford wants to encourage people to make informed dietary decisions. MaxLove offers cooking classes, access to a broth bank and scholarships for dietician appointments. Additionally, MaxLove provides therapeutic massages and acupuncture as part of the Ohana Project for Integrative Medicine.
Lupe Zacatenco heard about MaxLove through her care coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County as her son Joshua underwent treatment. A fan of the Fierce Foods Academy cooking classes, she said Joshua was excited to learn about nutrient dense foods “that would give him super strength to keep fighting his bad guy cancer cells.” Access to healthy food and weekly acupuncture appointments have boosted his care, but Zacatenco also credits MaxLove with helping her become a better caregiver.
“I needed a community of parents in the same situation that understood what we were also going through,” Zactaneco said via e-mail. “I needed to know there was more I could do for my son’s health and feel empowered so my son could also be empowered.”
A well-balanced diet is also a powerful tool to prevent secondary diseases like diabetes or organ failure after individuals are cancer free. As Wilford puts it, “no one has a plan or gives them a way to minimize those risks,” and families are often told by doctors to “keep doing what they are doing” after treatment, so if a survivor ate poorly before treatment they will likely do so afterwards. “It doesn’t matter if it comes from the 99 Cents Store or Whole Foods,” Wilford just wants people to eat more healthy, whole foods instead of processed goods.
Jacqueline Stubblefield first became involved with MaxLove when her daughter was undergoing leukemia treatment. Now the organization’s Partnerships and Product Development lead, Stubblefield credits it with helping her family feel more informed.
“When our daughter was first diagnosed in 2013 we knew nutrition and complementary medicine could play a huge role in keeping her healthy and strong, [but] at the time, there weren’t as many resources available as there are now. It is amazing to see how MaxLove Project has created programs that fill the void in pediatric healthcare and we have seen firsthand countless families that have been impacted by these programs.”
The Cannabis Connection
Part of what makes MaxLove unique is that they also believe cannabis has a role in complementary therapies. Hand-in-hand with MaxLove’s goal of educating families about nutrition is sharing evidence-supported research about medical marijuana. Pointing out that MaxLove isn’t a “cannabis organization, [it’s] a wellness organization,” Wilford believes that the patient’s “quality of life” is the most important thing and that no evidence-based therapy options should be discarded.
Like healthy foods, Wilford believes there are social and economic “barriers to access” that restrict certain families’ access to medicinal marijuana. She is also aware of the taboo, admitting that she kept her own search for oils in 2014 a secret. Federal law bars hospitals from directly sharing cannabis-related information with patients, but Wilford sees more doctors referring people to MaxLove and other advocacy groups as progress.
Wilford knows cannabis is no magical cure, “because nothing cures cancer right now,” but she does credit it with helping Max endure chemotherapy and a packed schedule of little league and homework.
To educate curious families, MaxLove teamed with Kannabis Works, a Santa Ana, California based dispensary that is well-versed in ongoing cannabis research. According to Shelly McKay, the COO and a health advisor at Kannabis Works, most of the fear revolves around THC’s psychoactive qualities. To counter that stigma, Kannabis Work’s staff is trained to understand the endocannabinoid system and the various benefits of THC and CBD. Since chemotherapy can suppress one’s immune system, McKay pointed out that it’s important for patients to use cannabis free of mold and pesticides.
Zacatenco’s family decided to use medical marijuana after hearing it could treat Joshua’s nerve damage pain from his chemotherapy. After discussing it with other parents and “hearing only good things,” she felt comfortable making that decision, but she said that in previous conversations with doctors they were often reluctant to prescribe it or even advised against it due to fears of addiction.
“I feel that the families we’ve met through MaxLove Project are open to using cannabis because of the shared belief that there is more to our kid’s treatment than what happens in the hospital setting.”
On April 22nd, MaxLove is hosting the Thrive Cup, a charity golf tournament in Aliso Viejo, California. According to McKay, companies like Mary’s Medicinals and CannaKids will attend to publicize their products and spread awareness that cannabis is a “tool for health and wellness.”
“If we can all gather in support of the therapeutic values of cannabis, we can start to change the conversation,” said Wilford.
As the cannabis industry spotlights MaxLove, Wilford and Stubblefield expect big things in 2019. Not only is MaxLove expanding their educational programs into more hospitals, they’re releasing recipe cards and developing ketogenic diet programs to bolster their reach.
“When a child is first diagnosed we would love to see every family immediately given MaxLove materials and resources to complementary therapies,” said Stubblefield. “We believe if every child has access to every fighting tool then together we can change the odds.”
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