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The Polish Man Who Kept on Racing Cars After Losing a Hand

Maks Mielżyński got diagnosed with cancer when he was 20 years old and had to have his right hand amputated, but none of that stopped him from racing.
February 5, 2015, 5:35pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Poland.

I met Maks Mielżyński in the first year of our postgraduate studies. He was a bit of an introvert, and the only thing that really seemed to bring him out of his shell was talking about his passion—rally racing. Sometimes, after class, he would take me for a ride in his BMW whose interior he had completely stripped down. Speeding in that car made me feel like an extra in a car chase scene from a movie in other words, it was awesome. One day, Maks started to complain about a pain in his right elbow. At first it didn't seem like it was serious— Maybe he hit it on a corner without noticing, I thought to myself. But then he started to come to the classes with his arm in a sling, and a few weeks later he didn't show up at all. I called him up to check on him and he told me he had cancer.

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Maks was 20 years old when he was diagnosed with pleomorphic sarcoma. One year later, he had his right hand amputated. Yet, he never stopped racing cars. Quite the opposite—he would actually schedule his chemotherapy sessions in a way that allowed him to participate in rallies. Last year, he earned himself second place at the Polish Classic Auto Cup championship.

I recently visited Maks at his home. It had been years since we last saw each other but that didn't stop us chattering aways for ages.

VICE: How did you first get into rally racing?
Maks Mielżyński: My uncle used to race in rallies and I guess I caught his passion. Although I wasn't that interested in cars before I got my driving license. But as soon as I was legally allowed to drive, I felt the power of my newly acquired driving skills, the possibility to expand them, the power of my car—I was hooked.

What was your first car?
My uncle helped me buy a BMW E30—all stripped down, with no seats or upholstery inside. I was 19 years old.

Do you remember your first rally?
I raced for the first time a year and a half after I got my first car, in a modified, autocross-ready Peugeot 106. Sixteen drivers took part in it and I came in sixth, which at the time was a big win to me. But I was mostly happy to have finished the race and that my car had remained intact. That's always the most important thing in car races.

Maks on the racetrack

Can you recall how you felt during that first race?
Adrenaline! That's all I can remember. I enjoyed the engine's roar and the speed I was able to reach then—now I drive much faster. I took part in the next few autocross events, both as a driver and as a co-driver. My results weren't that good, but I was getting some much needed experience.

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Then a little after my 20th birthday, I started to feel a pain in my right elbow. We'd already become friends by then, do you remember?

Yes, I do. I particularly remember that phone call.
At first, I thought it was just some windsurfing-related injury, cause I'd spend lots of time on the board back then. When the pain became less bearable, I went to the doctor, who suspected golfer's elbow, then tennis elbow. No one guessed that that pain could've been a symptom of a serious disease. I myself would've never guessed that a tumor can develop in your body at 21.

But the pain just wouldn't stop, even after I took some pretty strong medication. I wasn't able to get a proper night's sleep. Meanwhile I went from one doctor's office to another—all in all, a year passed before I got a real diagnosis.

What was the diagnosis?
They told me it was a malignant tumor—that I would have to go through radiotherapy and then they would surgically remove the tumor. They warned me that I might lose sensation in two of my fingers but I didn't mind that. I told myself, "It's only two fingers, I'll still manage to shift gears." Driving was the most important thing to me then.

But then the disease started spreading too quickly and the only thing they said they could do to stop it was to amputate the limb. I felt like I had hit a wall. I didn't hear what anyone was saying anymore. I got up, left the room had a complete meltdown. I started crying and then my legs went limp and I fell on the floor. Nurses picked me up, sat me on a bed, and gave me some sedatives.

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After realizing how upset I was, the doctors tried to avoid amputation by getting me on three more rounds of chemo. The tumor grew smaller and then much bigger. By that time I had prepared myself for the amputation, I had thought that there are cars with automatic gearboxes so I could race in one of them. As I went under, I was thinking about which automatic car I should get.

So you never thought of giving up racing?
I never intended to give it up, no. My uncle bought me a BMW with automatic transmission and asked me to get back to my trainings right after the surgery. Some would call that brave, others insane.
At first I trained on a driving simulator, but the only thing that really changed in races was that I had an automatic gearbox. They always subtract three percent of my points from my overall score, to reduce the difference.

What was the first rally after the surgery like?
It took place in the city of Biała Podlaska. On the last run of the day my car skidded and I hit the cones, so I lost five seconds. But for me, it was awesome anyway. Have you been involved in any more serious accidents?
Yes, one time I was training and it was raining. The wheels slipped and I hit some Styrofoam walls—the kind they use to build warehouses—with the rear part of my car. I wrote off the rear quarter and bended a wheel. I came out of it unharmed though.

How is your health now?
I've had five additional surgeries already. The cancer is now spreading to my lungs. I actually have only one whole lung left—they've removed the other except for a small fragment on the upper lobe. Thankfully, I'm not a marathon runner—I can race with just one lung. The doctors say that my prognosis is bad, but I believe that a successful recovery relies on the patient's mindset and my attitude is 200 percent positive. Oh, and if you're asking about the rest of it—I will still race. Right now I'm working on modifying my car so I get even better scores next season.