Author: Gene Frenette
Chris Mortensen remembers the moment last May when his own cancer journey reminded him why he had been coming to Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund benefit dinner/golf tournament for the previous 15 years.
As Mortensen waited in line to receive his proton radiation treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the NFL information insider for ESPN saw a man ahead of him dressed in jeans and work boots strapped to a gurney, holding his 3-year-old son.
“He’s going into the very scary radiation proton room,” said Mortensen. “You have to be in there to understand how intimidating a place it can be, even more so for a child. That’s when I thought of the Jay Fund.
“There’s a dad, who clearly took off from work, with his son who looks sick and scared. It made me think, ‘That’s what the Jay Fund is about, helping families tend to the needs of their children who are suffering from this.’ That was the moment it connected with me.”
Mortensen, diagnosed 17 months ago with Stage IV throat cancer, is now himself an indirect beneficiary of what the Jay Fund does to provide financial/emotional support to pediatric cancer victims and their families. As the man known as Mort learned in his own battle, which metastasized into his lungs in November, he draws inspiration from watching kids fight this terrible disease with an upbeat attitude.
“What I saw at MD Anderson was great humanity, the promise of young people of all nationalities,” said Mortensen. “Not just the patients, but the support of their caregivers. You’re seeing all kinds of pediatric patients and families fight this battle. Now I have a clear image and picture of what they’re feeling.”
Mortensen, 65, remains in the fight of his life to return to the ESPN airwaves for the start of the 2017 football season. He’s been through chemotherapy and the standard 35 radiation treatments. Mortensen thought he was on the cusp of remission last August, until a biopsy in November revealed the cancer had spread into his lungs.
NFL referee Tony Corrente, a throat cancer survivor who had the same oncologist as Mortensen , had forewarned him early on about the challenges he’d be facing.
“[Corrente] said you’re going to go through a period in radiation where you’re going to feel you had the worst strep throat ever in you life times 100,” said Moretensen, whose weight plummeted down to a low of 142 pounds, which he has mostly regained. “And when you’re done with radiation, it’s going to get worse for the next three or four months, which it did.”
Though he can’t play golf due to impending hernia surgery, Mortensen was determined not to miss the Jay Fund event this year. It motivates him to be around people dedicated to a cause, now closer to his heart than he could have imagined a short time ago.
Sunday night at the Jay Fund dinner, Mortensen was touched when he saw 22-year-old cancer survivor Marissa Ierna speak about her battle with rhabdomyosarcoma, which inflicted the lower calf muscles of her legs.
Mortensen, who met Ierna briefly two years ago when they sat at the same table as she received a Jay Fund scholarship, received an email from her right after his cancer diagnosis. Among the hundreds of correspondences of encouragement sent to Mortensen during his battle, it was the words from Ierna on January 19, 2016 that stuck with him the most.
Here is a partial transcript of Ierna’s email to Mortensen: “I want to first say how sorry I am to hear about your recent diagnosis. It took me a while to learn that in order to get through the chemo and all the hard days, I had to keep a smile on my face and always have a positive attitude. I wish I would have known that earlier in treatment, it would have made the first few months a lot easier. As you start treatment, just remember to keep a positive attitude and always stay strong.
“I am very thankful to cancer for all it has provided me. I know this sounds crazy, but it has changed my life for the better. I encourage you to take this terrible disease and turn it into something amazing! The toughest battles are given to the strongest warriors, which means you can do this!”
Now imagine a man in his mid-60s, fresh off a cancer diagnosis, reading that from a young woman he met only briefly at a Jay Fund dinner. It uplifted Mortensen beyond measure, especially when cancer was beating him down.
So when Mortensen heard Ierna’s message to the Jay Fund audience on Sunday, the memory of that email moved him to tears all over again.
“Kids in a cancer unit are just so dang resilient, they actually inspire you,” Mortensen said. “Everybody goes through the fear of cancer on some level, and Marissa’s note was one of the most memorable.
“I read it once or twice all over again when I was in the dark shadows of my cancer journey. I was more emotional listening to her [at the Jay Fund dinner] because it hit me deeper. You couldn’t meet Marissa with that unforgettable smile, hear her story, and ever forget her.”
Ierna recently graduated from Florida State with a marketing degree and just took a job working with the Jay Fund. An avid runner, she’s approaching four years in remission and just ran the Boston Marathon in 3:28.31.
“My oncologist told me I’d never be able to run again any more than five miles because of the radiation in my leg, making me prone to stress fractures,” Ierna said.
A hard tumor was wrapped around her leg muscles, and the cancer in her bone marrow showed it advanced to Stage IV, just like Mortensen.
Ierna, an Atlantic Coast High graduate, credits the Jay Fund for providing her parents and younger brother with the emotional support they needed to cope through her illness. She’s been paying it forward ever since, making it her personal mission to help others like Mortensen in the same predicament.
It’s still unclear what the outcome will be for Mortensen. Acting on a tip from Coughlin, he’s battling the cancer in his lungs with immunotherapy, a treatment option with less intense side effects than chemo or radiation.
The 26-year ESPN employee has most of his voice and hair back, but his saliva glands aren’t yet fully restored to easily get him through 30-second sound bites. He’s hopeful another three months of down time before the season starts will advance the healing process, allowing him to return to full-time duty for Sunday Night and Monday Night Countdown shows.
Mortensen has seen the ravages of cancer up close, how it initially “crushed” his wife Micki and struck fear in so many kids during cancer treatment visits. He has gained an even greater appreciation for Coughlin’s charity, which has delivered over $8 million in grants during its 22-year existence.
But the Jay Fund is about more than just providing families financial assistance. It’s also about cancer survivors emotionally lifting up the next patient.
As Chris Mortensen discovered on his cancer journey, you can never be too old to be inspired by the young.