Winning in the game of life

Published 2:15 pm Friday, July 10, 2009

Mark Newton has played catch with future Hall of Famer New York Yankee Mariano Rivera. He’s had deep conversations with Yankee manger Joe Girardi and Yankee great Derek Jeter. He routinely exchanges e-mails with actors from the TV show “The Office.”

Yet, none of those memories compare with the greatest achievement of Mark’s life: beating cancer in just four months.

On March 10, Mark was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Instantly, his life changed from being just another 16-year-old to dealing with a potentially deadly disease.

“It’s kind of like, when you first hear that news, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” he said. “But we know a lot of people that have the same thing as me, but they’ll have to be in the hospital much longer than me.”

His mother, Teresa, said the news only made her cling to the everyday things.

“When he was first diagnosed, you feel like your world stops,” she said. “Even though it was a very difficult time for the first few days, ‘The Office’ provided us with laughter.”

Mark went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy, and is currently in the middle of radiation therapy. After he finished chemo, however, he took a test that confirmed he is cancer-free. Once he’s finished with radiation, he can get back to the important things, such as enjoying his summer, playing tennis and getting ready to be a junior at Oak Mountain High School.

However, his bout with cancer led to making some well-known friends.

After finding out his diagnosis, Mark’s father, Mike, shared the news with some co-workers. One of those co-workers had a connection to a Hollywood producer who knew some of the actors from “The Office,” Mark’s favorite TV show.

Soon, “The Office” actors Kate Flannery, Creed Bratton, Phyllis Smith, Nancy Carell and Rainn Wilson started to e-mail and call Mark, offering words of encouragement.

“It’s kind of like a six degrees of separation thing,” Mark said. “We see them on TV, you’d never think, ‘Wow, they’d be involved in our lives.’ It’s amazing they would take the time to do it, because you know they have a lot of things going on.”

A few weeks ago, the Newton family took a trip to Atlanta to see the Yankees play the Braves in interleague baseball. A church friend had a brother who knew Braves general manager Frank Wren, so the family was able to get field passes for two Yankees-Braves games.

“The Braves had heard about my story and wanted to do something for me,” Mark said.

Mark got to meet with Braves players, but his heart was set on meeting their opponents. Wren spoke with Yankees officials, and before Mark knew it, he was shaking Jeter’s hand.

“The conversation was a blur because you’re like, ‘This is actually happening,’” Mark said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Some of the Yankees shared experiences in their own lives: Jeter told of his sister’s battle with lymphoma, and Girardi talked about his family members dealing with cancer. During that night’s game, Girardi even wore a bracelet Mark gave him with the words “Mighty Warrior of Prayer” inscribed.

“Words can’t describe it,” Mark said about the experience. “It was unbelievable. Even though it wasn’t Yankee Stadium, it was still amazing.”

Teresa said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.

“It just makes you so thankful for family and friends,” she said. “We’ve had great support, and it just fills your heart. That’s the best way to describe it.”