Mark Gorton (age 43) and Matthew Eggers (age 7) are the two honorary survivors for this year’s Grand Island Relay for Life, which will be held from 4 p.m. until midnight on June 9th at Veterans Park on Bedell Road. They are known as the “dynamic duo.” Mark Gorton works for the Grand Island school system as an audiovisual technician. In this interview, Mark talks about his life, career, and family before and after his cancer diagnosis.
Tell me about your life before cancer.
I went to high school in Grand Island and was a member of the class of 1991. After that, I went to Buffalo State College and graduated with a bachelor of arts in broadcasting and communication in 1995. I was very lucky; I got a job working at channel 7 as a part-time sports producer. I got into my field right away and got to work with John Murphy, who was sports director at the time. He is the voice of the Buffalo Bills. I love sports, especially football and the Bills. I was there for about six or seven months. Then I worked at different things here and there for next eight months.
In August of 1996, I started working at a job at Empire Sports Network, which was the network that used to carry the Sabres games. I was at Empire for seven years. First I was production assistant. I did video editing and a little producing, mainly video editing and working in the studio at a tape operator. At the time, we edited highlights. Now it’s very digital. Then I became a producer of Empire Sports Report. These were half hour basically sports casts, where we do news, highlights,and sound bytes. We also did features of everything in western and central new York. It was a neat job. Every day was a new experience. You would work for eight hours for a half hour product. It took all that time to work with the anchor to get scripts written, to go through the rundown of the show with production assistants, who pieced it together. I did the research first to find out the big stories of the day, the big games of the night, and the topics to hit.
What is it like to report on sports?
Sporting events are often done in the evening. That was a big part of my life. I was working in the field that I went to school for, and I was enjoyed all the time working with co-workers. Sometimes I would meet sports celebrities and that was neat. The biggest thing of my time there was the fact that I met my wife, Debbie, and as it turned out, she graduated from Grand Island High School as well. She graduated a couple of years earlier. We got married in 1999 (September 11th). It is bittersweet for us, not a happy day in the history of our country.
Tell me about your family.
Our first daughter, Sara, is one of the youth ambassadors for Relay this year. She was born in October of 2001. She is a great kid. She goes to school here. She’s really smart. A flute player, she just performed in the SuperZeroes play (Spotlighters), her first stage show. She graduated from Leadership Niagara, the Lync program. She is amazing. She has a lot of love in her heart. Teachers adore her and her kindness. She has fantastic friends. They have a good time and they care for each other. They are nice people. We have another daughter Jenna, and she was born in September of 2006. She goes to Huth Road Elementary School (Mrs. Schauger’s class). She’s also big into music and plays oboe in the band. She’s also in the Select Chorus with Mrs. Horrigan. Sara was in both band and chorus in Huth. The teachers there are fantastic teachers.
Your kids are very musical. What about you?
I played trumpet in high school. Mr. Sherman Lyke was the band director here. That’s another great man. He was here working in the district for a long time. He comes in every now and then. An amazing trumpet player. He allowed me as a new freshman to hang out in the band room and feel welcome when I knew absolutely no one in the school. There were times when I had no one to sit with in lunch, and he said tocome to the band room and hang out there.
Tell me about the experience of being diagnosed with cancer and about the surgery and family support.
It was a shock. I was just going to the primary doctor for a routine physical. My wife and I were asking about general fatigue, thinking that our thyroid levels were a little off. So, as part of a routine checkup for thyroid, the general doctor, Dr. Leone, stood behind me and reached in my neck and started feeling around. It was at that point, he said, “Oh that’s interesting.” I had no symptoms, no problems with swelling, and I never felt sick. He said, “You might have something on your thyroid.” He told me to look in the mirror. “When you swallow, you’ll see a little bulge at the bottom of your neck and it’s not your Adam’s apple.” So that’s what starting the process of finding out that I had a cold nodule. This was back in 2004. At the time, the research said that, in men, 50 percent of the time, the cold nodule would be cancerous. I was young enough, they might as well get the thing out. And they weren’t even testing to see if it was cancerous. They would find out at the surgery. I experienced the initial shock and the amount of testing. I consulted with the endocrinologist and the surgeon. There was the initial shock. I had no symptoms. I didn’t feel sick, didn’t understand why it was there, or what caused nodule to show up. You deal with that. I have dealt with that with my family, including Mom Sandy, step dad Tony (since passed), and my wife’s parents, Paula and John (he passed from cancer three years ago). I had a lot of family support.
How did the surgery work out?
The surgeon who worked on me at Sisters' Hospital was Dr. Mohamed Razack. He’s written a book. He was called the thyroid king because he had performed so many surgeries and was an expert in thyroidectomies. When I went to the first surgery, I had nerves but felt confident that he would get everything out. I’m very fortunate, and lucky and blessed in my cancer story that if you’re going to get cancer anywhere, the thyroid is probably one of the best spots because it tends to be contained in the gland itself. No biopsy was done. The doctors would find out during surgery. They did the surgery. If the cold nodule was benign, they would have just removed the left nodule. The nodule was malignant so they removed the entire thyroid. Now, I take generic synthroid once a day. I came out of it fine. Officially, they said that I did have cancer and that it was contained. They felt they contained it all so they did prescribe radiation or chemo. I was very lucky to get everything out and it seemed… don’t know if you can call it remission because I didn’t have symptoms. I had no weight loss, no hair loss. I was very lucky. I didn’t have to be treated for cancer with the exception of the surgery to take out the nodule.
As years went on, they did follow up tests. I got blood level checked twice a year, and I would get sonogram on my neck.
Were you still working at Empire while you were fighting cancer?
Empire laid me off in August 2003. Then I worked for the Sabres for a year. I was a producer. I produced TV show and intermission updates. Then the season ended, and then I was out of work again. It was shortly after that season ended, when the diagnoses and tests came in. It was September of 2004, when I had the surgery. Shortly after surgery, recovered after two to three weeks, I started a new job at Ingram Micro. There I was a software licensing specialist. It was completely out of my field, but it was a job. It was actually a good place to work, and the people were very nice. But you worked in a cubicle all day and your interaction with the outside world was limited to phone calls from resellers, as well as placing orders. I was the main rep for the filemaker line (an apple product). The rep in California came in twice a year to meet with our pod and our team to go over products and see how everything was going. I was there full time for a little over a year and, when I started working here, I pulled a little part time there, some nights. I started working for the school district as an audiovisual technician in August 2005. I love this job, I love working with people, and the staff in my technology office is great. The teachers, the support staff, the administration, the board of education… everyone the entire time I’ve been here works together as a team and does the best that they can to educate our children, not just on the academic part but on how to be good people in general. The best part is working with the students. It’s the most rewarding piece of this job: having the ability to make a difference in their lives and to see them grow and achieve at such a high level that it really gives you hope for our future. I think that, sometimes, the younger generation gets a bad rap because all you hear is the negative that goes around in the country. When you work in a school district like Grand Island, and you see how hard the students work at learning and accomplish so much, the kids really inspire us on the staff with how kind they can be and appreciative of the efforts that everyone gives to make their lives better. The students have really taken me in through the years. Sometimes, they even call me a teacher, which I’m not but I feel honored that they think of me at that level because I think the world of the teachers here. I aspire to be as good as them and as influential on a daily basis.
Tell me about the experience with follow up and the recurrence of cancer.
Well it came back as years of testing went on. The X rays showed suspicious lymph nodes in the area where the surgery was done. They didn’t know if it was just scar tissue or if there were any cancerous cells that were forming and hadn’t been cleaned out.
So my surgeon had retired so I couldn’t go back to have him clean everything out. Eventually, I decided to go to Roswell Park for a second opinion, and that’s where I felt most comfortable. I announce the football and basketball games for the high school. I love doing that. Without my voice, I feel that I would lose my identity. There is always a danger that when they go into the area for a second time; there is risk that, because the thyroid gland is not there, something else could get hit in the process of cleaning out. At Roswell, it was May of 2007 that I got my second surgery. They cleaned out ten to thirteen lymph nodes and they said that one was suspicious but never anything that they felt needed radiation or chemo.
When did you get involved with Relay for Life and what does it mean for you as a survivor?
When I first joined Relay as the emcee for the kickoff, I didn’t mention that I was a survivor because I didn’t feel that I suffered enough. I feel that I’ve been involved since about 2010. I’ve been so blessed to be involved in this Grand Island Relay for Life family through Becky and Lynn Dingey, Candy Mye and Missy Stolfi. They are fab four of the Grand Island Relay, and I know there are so many others who contribute to this cause of fighting cancer. They are the ones who brought me in and have really treated me with such love and honor. I am truly touched that they would consider me as an honorary survivor.
Note: Stay tuned for Matthew Eggers' story and for more about Relay for Life in the next few days.