Mark Gregory pauses as he relives the time when he nearly died. His gaze trails off into the distance and words fail him as he ponders a past he prefers to keep behind closed doors.
Yet, he's willing to dredge up those painful events for a purpose.
The River Hill resident is marking a huge cancer-survival milestone by throwing a party Sept. 30 at the Ellicott City VFW Post for dozens of his closest friends and business associates. But it won't be just any party. It will be a fundraiser to benefit the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge in Baltimore, a temporary residence for adults receiving outpatient cancer treatment, where he stayed decades ago.
Maybe it was the realization that he's beaten incredible odds — it's been 20 years since doctors handed him a death sentence — that finally spurred him to take action. Or maybe it was watching his only daughter get married in July that stirred deep-seated emotions.
"I only know that I've wanted to do something for Hope Lodge for a long time," he said.
His odyssey began in 1989 with a grotesquely swollen left eye. He was 35 and living in Prince George's County, where he grew up. His youngest brother's optometrist girlfriend, who is now his wife, persuaded him to see a doctor the next day. When that exam failed to find a cause, he was referred that afternoon for a CAT scan, which revealed a tumor on the membrane protecting his brain.
He underwent a craniotomy to have it removed, but when he was wheeled out of the operating room, Gregory was told by his neurosurgeon that "it wasn't what they thought it was after all" and an oncologist recommended radiation.
Again, someone he knew intervened. The family pediatrician heard about Gregory's story and referred him to a specialist in hematology and oncology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There Gregory was told he had telltale signs of cancer and would undergo testing.
Finally, he learned he had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that normally strikes people in their 60s and 70s and kills them within three years, according to Dr. Ephraim Fuchs, who was in the first month of a Hopkins fellowship.
"It began in his eye socket, but within a year it had spread into bones throughout his body," said Fuchs, now an associate professor of oncology at JHU School of Medicine. "The only known curative option was a bone marrow transplant."
After testing revealed that his brother Joe was a perfect match, Gregory starting shutting down his business in 1991. A second-generation photographer, he ran a private studio and was the sole support for his wife, Kathy, and the couple's three children under 6.
"I was going into the hospital in July, and I knew I may not be coming back," he said. When his close-knit circle of friends from his alma mater, Parkdale High School, heard what was happening, they organized a fundraiser to help offset future medical expenses and loss of income.
"That effort and their generosity kept my family from falling apart," he said. "I can never pay them back, but I can pay it forward."
During his 60-day stay at Hopkins, Gregory imagined his body producing white blood cells, which fight infection, and relied heavily on an optimistic outlook, a strong will and the power of prayer.
"People I didn't know were praying for me," he recalled. "I'm not into religion, which I feel is manmade. But I am spiritual, which I feel is universal."
Though it was difficult, he said he forced himself to "let go of everything but me. I was right at the edge and I knew I had to take care of myself or I wouldn't be able to pull myself back."
When his wife was finally allowed to bring their three young children for a visit, he worried whether his one-year-old son would even recognize him with his gaunt face and shaved head.
"When we made eye contact, he smiled," Gregory said, reliving one of the high points of those two long months. "Kathy and I sat with the kids in a grassy courtyard outside the lobby and for the first time I got to see Brian walk."
After the transplant and chemotherapy, Gregory's life was rocked yet again when doctors said he must remain within 30 minutes of the hospital as a condition of discharge or he could die trying to reach Hopkins for emergency care. That meant returning to his Prince George's County home was out of the question.
His rising panic was staunched when a counselor suggested he might be eligible to stay at the local Hope Lodge, which is located near the hospital on West Lexington Street.
"I'm alive because of Hope Lodge," said Gregory, who was shuttled back and forth for blood transfusions and other critical follow-up procedures. "I stayed there for free for 30 days in a clean, bright private room and they drove me to the hospital. The place was a godsend. What would I have done without it?"
Karen Seaberry, Hope Lodge manager for 13 years, wasn't there when Gregory was a resident, but she understands his appreciation.
"It speaks for itself that someone like Mr. Gregory is still impacted by the warm and welcoming environment we provided when he stayed here so long ago," she said.
"We build relationships and provide emotional support for patients and their caregivers — it's really more like a family. And it's a blessing to me, too. I go home every day knowing I've touched people's lives."
During his stay, Gregory took time to chat with newly diagnosed patients "who were scared to death" in order to lighten the mood, he said.
"I told them this was how it worked: First, they give the medication to me, and if it doesn't kill me then they give it to rats and if it doesn't kill them, they give it to you, so it's all good. That got some chuckles."
His cancer in remission, Gregory finally returned home the last week of October 1991. But four-and-a-half years later, while he was camping with his family in Maine, he felt an unusually sharp pain.
"My back was hurting and I was popping Tylenol," he said. Back home, as he leaned over to roll out the tent to dry in his backyard, he realized he couldn't stand back up. He crawled into his house and got his wife to summon help. It turned out he'd cracked a vertebra, and other fractures began appearing throughout his body. His cancer had returned.
"Mark was just a month or so from dying, his cancer was so aggressive," Fuchs said.
But it just so happened that a new treatment called donor lymphocyte infusion was emerging in 1995. Gregory was one of the first Hopkins patients to receive the treatment, which collects blood cells and separates out the white ones, Fuchs said.
Gregory also endured 96 consecutive hours of chemo three weeks later to further attack the cancer cells which still grew during the infusion, and was then tested for myeloma. When no trace was detected, physicians feared a faulty test and ordered another four straight days of chemo and another test. The myeloma had vanished.
"Mark went into complete remission and has stayed there ever since," Fuchs said. "It's uncommon to be rescued by DLI. Mark is one of the few on Earth" that has happened to.
Though he calls himself "a science guy," Fuchs said Gregory's attitude made a difference in his recovery.
"He has a persistence and an energy about him that allowed him to make it through it all," he said of Gregory's amazing outcome. "When you really like someone and he's become your friend … I was completely, emotionally riding on how he did."
Gregory chooses not to be followed with regular testing, but to be vigilant about monitoring potential symptoms himself instead. He moved to River Hill about six years ago.
"The threat of cancer returning could constantly be looming just below the surface if I were to reopen those doors," Gregory said. "It's emotionally crippling and it can dominate your thought processes."
And there's one other lesson he says he's learned.
"How audacious of us to assume that the stars will align when we want them to," he said. "If there's something you want to accomplish in life, do it now."