2018 Rose Parade: Firefighter Vows to ‘Help As Many People As I Can’
November 15, 2017 | by Denise Heady
For the 46th year in a row, City of Hope will participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade. This year, 10 patients will welcome 2018 atop City of Hope’s Rose Parade float. The float, themed "Transforming Lives with Hope" adds a deeper dimension to the parade’s theme of “Making a Difference.”
Here, we meet float rider Cory Norton, a firefighter, husband and father of two young children.
Cory Norton is in the business of helping others.
As a firefighter and paramedic for the San Bernardino County Fire Department (SBCoFD), he often puts his life on the line to save others.
“I will do my best to help as many people as I can in this life because that’s what matters,” said Norton, 31, who has been with the fire department for nearly 10 years.
But when Norton was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer on his spine in early 2016, he had to learn to lean on others to help him get through the toughest fight of his life.
THE DIAGNOSIS: EPITHELIOID SARCOMA
Dealing with intense back pain was just a normal part of Norton’s daily life — at least that’s what he was used to since suffering from a back injury while on the job. He had fusion surgery in 2008 for deteriorated lumbar disc.
But in 2015, that “normal” pain started to get progressively worse and worse.
“I started to suspect that something was wrong when my right leg went numb,” said Norton. “So I set up a doctor’s appointment and had some tests done.”
His doctor discovered a mass hovering above one of his vertebra that was causing the pain. He had surgery to remove some of the hematoma that was crushing his nerves. The pain instantly declined and the surgery was deemed successful.
However, three weeks later Cory received a call from his doctor to let him know that the mass he removed turned out to be a malignant tumor that had already spread to his spine and lungs.
His diagnosis was epithelioid sarcoma — a very rare type of cancer in his spine.
The news came as a shock to not only his family, but to his doctor as well. His doctor immediately made some calls to get him in to see sarcoma specialist Warren Chow, M.D., at City of Hope.
BUILDING HIS ARMY
Chow, a clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research at City of Hope, specializes in treating sarcomas that form in connective tissue and are generally resistant to chemotherapy. His laboratory is focused on understanding the inner mechanics of sarcomas and developing experimental therapies for when standard treatment doesn’t work.
I didn’t know what to expect from City of Hope,” said Norton. “I thought I had an idea since I was a paramedic and I have dealt with a lot of hospitals in the past, but City of Hope blew me away. The organization at this hospital is amazing.”
Shortly after meeting with Chow, Norton met his neurosurgeon Mike Chen, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Neurosurgery. Chen specializes in complex operations for tumors in the brain and spine.
Both doctors made it clear to Norton that his type of cancer was extremely rare and would be difficult to fight.
“I felt like I was in a horror movie,” said Norton, regarding his diagnosis. “I realized the severity of my situation. I only had a little time to soak in what was happening.”
While Norton was preparing for his fourth spine surgery since his work injury, the only thing he could think about was his family.
“At the time, I had a 2-year-old boy to protect from the reality of this and a 3-month-old daughter that I needed to bond with prior to starting this journey,” said Norton. “Looking into my kids’ eyes and telling them that I will always be here for them was the hardest thing I have ever had to do as a man. My son was old enough to notice how many doctor appointments I had and he would continually ask me if I would ever leave him.”
But Norton had many people on his side — along with tremendous support from his family, he had a fire department that he knew would help provide for his family during this time. The San Bernardino County Fire Department has held several fundraisers in honor of Norton and continues to be there for him.
“I knew that they would find a way for me to collect a paycheck, and they did,” said Norton. “To this day my brothers and sisters from Local 935 are still donating sick hours so I can collect a paycheck and feed my family. I was scared but I was going to battle with an army behind me!”
'AN INCREDIBLE IMPACT'
After a 14-hour surgery where Chen completely removed one of Norton’s vertebra and part of another, he began seven rounds of chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation.
While Norton knew his road to recovery wouldn’t be easy, he kept reminding himself and his doctors that he was going to beat this.
And he is on track to do just that.
After finishing extensive rounds of chemo, radiation and a major surgery, Norton has had massive regression of his tumors in his lungs and has no evidence of disease in his spine.
“I am pretty sure that Dr. Chow was smiling from ear to ear on the inside when he told me that I was in partial remission,” said Norton. “I was where Dr. Chow wanted me to be and I could see it on his face. Being in partial remission and to be stable was huge.”
Through all of this, Norton is thankful to his family and friends for their support and also to the hospital staff who was with him through each step of his journey.
“I have actually become friends with a lot of the staff there at City of Hope,” said Norton. “I would consider my two favorite doctors, Dr. Chen and Dr. Chow, to be my friends. These people have made an incredible impact on my life. I have never seen doctors and nurses care so much for someone like me — just an average patient.”
After months of treatment, Norton and his wife Tawni were finally able to take a break and spend some quality family time camping and taking a trip to Hawaii — just being “normal” again.
Norton is currently undergoing a targeted therapy and has been stable for just over a year.
I hate cancer so much, but it really taught me how to live and it made me prioritize my life,” said Norton.
“I wish people could learn this lesson without going through so much pain and suffering, but I have learned that God is good and to not turn from him in these bad times, but to lean on him and trust him, because he will be by your side through all the darkness and he will show you that in every dark cloud that there is a silver lining.
“It’s easy to forget how great people are in this ugly world. I had so many strangers, people that I have never met before, donate money to me and they were willing to help in any way possible. I had many strangers from all different races come to me and pray on me. It really opened my eyes again to see the good in this world and that is priceless.”
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