In 2007, Les Maher’s doctor gave him devastating news.
They told him he had adenoid cystic carcinoma of the right tear gland.
Less than 1,200 people a year in the United States are diagnosed with this rare cancer, which is slow moving but has no cure.
“I curled into a ball and started to cry,” Mahler, 63 of Livermore, California, tells PEOPLE.
“Then I looked around and said, ‘Hey, I’m still here. I can put my feet on the floor. I can look up and see the sky. It’s not that bad,’ ” says Mahler, who is a father and a grandfather.
Not long afterward, he discovered the 8-year-old son of his friends, Sheri and Craig Watts, had been diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma.
Mahler went to visit Kyle and had an epiphany.
“While I was there, I met a boy about 3 who was clinging to his dad’s neck,” he says. “He was having chemo and that really bothered me.
“How could I feel sorry for myself when I had lived a good life and these kids had barely started to live?” he says.
So he suggested he and the Watts, who own a local winery, team up with local firefighters to do an old-fashioned grape stomp and dub it Stomp Out Kids Cancer.
It has been held every fall since 2011, raising about $20,000. Proceeds go to the pediatric oncology clinic at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento.
Sheri Watts says Mahler was a good friend to them during their son’s health crisis.
“Les knew what Ky was going thru, ” says Watts, 44, of Walnut Grove, California. “He had radiation and knew how sick it made him. He could empathize with Ky and that meant a lot.”
In addition to the grape stomp, Mahler wrote a children’s book called A Hole in His Socks and donates $5 of every sale to cancer research at UC Davis.
The illustrator of the book, Vera Lowdermilk, has a granddaughter with leukemia.
Mahler says it’s the kids who inspire him.
“I saw Kyle continue to do his daily activities, even joining the cross country team,” Mahler said. “I thought, if he can keep living his life, so can I.”
Making Each Day Count
Last year, Mahler got the Oakland A’s to donate tickets so young cancer patients could go to the game.
“He wrote a moving email about helping the kids,” Detra Paige of the Oakland A’s tells PEOPLE.
“He only asked for 25 tickets, but we thought he could use more, so we gave him 50 tickets each for three games,” says Paige.
Mahler hasn’t just inspired children.
Watts Winery employee Kimmberlyn Ogren’s daughter, Rachel, participated one year when they released butterflies during the event as an addition to the fundraiser.
Rachel Ogren was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Les’ heart is in this 100%,” Kimmberlyn, who lost her husband to liver cancer six years ago, tells PEOPLE.
“He wanted to make a difference and definitely has a golden heart,” says Kimmberlyn, 58, of Galt, California.
While Mahler’s cancer has a survival rate of 80 percent at five years, it decreases after that. If the cancer metastasizes, survival rates drop drastically.
It has metastasized into his lymph nodes, lungs and brain, and he has suffered two strokes. He says he is now in palliative care.
Oddly enough, he says he considers himself fortunate.
“I know what I’m going to die of and about when it’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s not like someone who just suddenly dies. That person didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to their loved ones, and didn’t get a chance to live every day of their life appreciating each day as a gift.”
And it’s not all about farewells.
Mahler wants to put out the word that cancer shouldn’t stop anyone from living their lives.
“The cancer hasn’t stopped me from achieving my dreams,” Mahler says. “The only thing that can stop my dreams is me.”
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