PEOPLE YOU SHOULD KNOW: Marc Wright - Columbia firefighter fights cancer

Retired firefighter Marc Wright learned that he would be travelling to New York for a ride-a-long with Rescue 1. He hugged his friend and benefit organizer Tommy Goran. (Photo courtesy of Tommy Goran.)

Marc Wright is a fighter.

He fights fires, for his patients’ lives, and now he’s fighting for his own -- for the fourth time.

The retired Columbia fireman underwent his thirty-third round of chemotherapy Wednesday, this time in anticipation of his trip to New York to visit the fire department and 9/11 memorial there.

“Rescue 1 is the elite of the elite,” Wright said. “I want to go and spend a whole day just paying tribute.”

Rescue 1 is one of the country's first fire units and it has always been his lifelong dream to spend a day with the noble firefighters. The 47-year-old man has been battling cancer on and off for the past three years. In June, he learned that it had come back much worse than previous times, with tumors in more places.

“The scan showed that it had return in my liver, one in my lungs, and lymph nodes,” he said. “A fourth time.”

He retired in February 2017 from his 25-year career at the Columbia Missouri Fire Department. He also worked part-time on the ambulance at Boone Hospital. He dedicated his entire life to rescuing people.

“All I ever wanted to be was a firefighter,” he said.

Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The cancers mostly responsible for this higher risk were respiratory, such as in the lung, or GI, such as large intestine and kidney.

“I was 44 years old when I went in for a routine City of Columbia physical,” Wright said. “After the physical, I received a phone call from my doctor saying my blood work came back abnormal.”

After returning to the doctor and getting a colonoscopy, they discovered that he had a softball-sized tumor in his upper abdomen with no symptoms at all.

“They removed seven inches of the upper intestine in a six-hour surgery,” Wright explained.

He went through 12 rounds of chemo in six months. Wright continued to work as a division chief and leaned on his fellow co-workers. He would have dinners with them and play basketball, maintaining activity level with the fire department.

“It always helped me to be around the guys, we were definitely a family,” he said. “It’s a huge support group. I bounced back pretty good.”

As he was easing into some sort of normalcy, six months later Wright went back for another colonoscopy. His result came back - he no longer had colon cancer.

“And so I was ecstatic," he said, recalling the memory with a smile.

The joy was short-lived though. Five days later, doctors performed a much more thorough PET scan on him and found tumors on his liver.

“Pretty typical for colon cancer to move to the liver, it really didn’t surprise them a whole lot,” Wright said. “But they found two tumors on my liver. One was easy to get to; one was extremely difficult.”

Wright said that when he heard that he would have to undergo a six-hour surgery, he did not hesitate. His operation at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center went an unexpected 17 hours.

“After my surgery, I went through 12 more rounds of chemo. Still going to work, still working through the chemo treatments.”

Six months later, doctors performed another scan and told Wright that he had beat cancer again. Then they agreed to scan him every three months, and three months later he received news that the cancer was back in multiple places in his liver.

His doctor told him that he was a high-risk patient and that they weren’t going to be performing radiation on him -- a primary way to avoid the growth of tumors. His doctor recommended that his medical team watch Wright for several weeks instead.

“And that time, I just sat at my vehicle and cried,” Wright said with tears peaking at the corner of his eyes. “I just kinda felt like they weren’t giving me a platform to fight. You can’t fight if you don’t give me a reason to fight.”

And even in that moment of weakness, Wright fought.

“I immediately called my oncologist,” he said. “I really want to fight this.’”

Wright's doctor said they were giving him anywhere from "months to years" to live -- and he wanted a better answer. The conclusion resulted in an aggressive treatment called focal radiation. Seven weeks, Monday through Friday he underwent radiation all while Wright was inching toward retirement.

“I was six months from retiring,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out on cancer’s terms, I wanted to go out on my terms.”

So his doctor assisted him through the radiation, scanned Wright again and the cancer was gone.

"My family was ecstatic," he said. "We beat it for the third time."

Wright was able to retire from the fire department before getting the scan that determined his cancer had returned for the fourth time.

"My doctor told me I have five years," he said. "But I've been a Christian all my life and I believe that God has a final say in all our lives. As long as I'm fighting I know He can heal me."

Wright said that he doesn't live his life based off of reports or scans. As long as he can tolerate treatments, he's going to keep getting them.

"Marc built such a legacy," Tommy Goran, Wright's close friend, said. "So many people are invested in him."

Upon hearing Wright's cancer had returned, Goran organized a benefit to help raise money and help Wright complete his dream of visiting New York.

"It built itself," Goran said about the event. It was an overwhelming amount of community support as much of it was donation-based.

"Somebody bought a rubber chicken for $300," Goran said laughing. "They just wanted to contribute to Marc."

The event raised $15,000 in one evening, amounting to a total $20,000 raised for Wright. It was at the benefit Wright learned he would be doing a ride-a-long with Rescue 1.

"I had to call in a lot of favors, because post-9/11 they don't really do ride-a-longs anymore," Goran said. "But everything aligned."

Wright said he didn't need the money raised.

"My plane tickets were donated, plans were made ahead of time," Wright said. "I had good pay and I have a good pension. There are other people who need it more."

Wright plans on making a $5,000 donation to both the Firefighter Cancer Support Network- Missouri Chapter and SafetyNet of Missouri. With whatever funds are leftover, he plans to take a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, and make an in-person donation to St. Jude's Children's Hospital.

"I know it sounds weird, but I miss the patients at the hospital," he said. "I wonder how they're doing. I couldn't even imagine being a parent with two jobs and trying to pay for my child's medical bills."

Wright was excited about his trip to New York though, and was planning to leave Sunday for four days to exploere monuments. A trip that fit nicely between chemo sessions.

"I'm fighting with all I have, I have [life] benchmarks to reach," Wright said. "Whatever happens to me, people will know that I won't quit."

"I may have cancer, but cancer doesn't have me."

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