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.