Chicago Actor Jeff Gorti Lost His Eye to Cancer. Now, He Is Using His Story to Inspire Others | Playbill

Special Features Chicago Actor Jeff Gorti Lost His Eye to Cancer. Now, He Is Using His Story to Inspire Others

The performer on beating childhood cancer and his chance connection with a little boy who is just like him.

Jeff Gorti (right) and the Walton Family Julia Chambers

Jeff Gorti is living his dream on Broadway—but his pathway of getting there was not clear-cut. As a young child, Gorti was diagnosed with cancer. When he was just over a year old, the performer’s parents were given the heartbreaking news that their son had retinoblastoma—a rare eye cancer that begins in the retina. They were told he would have to lose his left eye or else potentially lose his life.

There was no question: Gorti had the life-saving surgery to remove his eye, and since then has been cancer-free. Flash forward to now, and he is an ensemble member in Broadway's Tony Award-winning musical Chicago. He also understudies the leading role of cunningly confident lawyer, Billy Flynn, and Roxie Hart’s short-lived lover, Fred Casely. To the actor, where he is now serves as a constant reminder and testament of where he came from.

Throughout his childhood in Philadelphia, Gorti felt different from the other kids. “I was also a mixed kid that danced, so I took on all the things that are deemed ‘different’ in society and just sort of ran with it,” says Gorti, with a smile. “I think there were times, especially in high school—a little bit in college, and sometimes when working—that I felt ‘other.’ But I think everyone can feel that way to some degree." He then adds, referring to his prosthetic eye: “I think mine is just worn a little more in your face—there’s really no hiding it.”

Because his left eye is prosthetic, the performer has no left-side vision. In many cases, and especially in his work in the theatre, Gorti has no choice but to wear his survival story on his sleeve. “I have to tell people about my situation, and you see this light switch in their eyes—it’s either sympathy and empathy, sadness, joy, [or] inspiration," he says. "You don’t know what you’re going to get…so it can be a lot.” 

But Gorti has never let his situation become his whole story. Since he was a young child, he refused to have the lack of vision limit him. He played soccer and swam. At age seven, following in the footsteps of both his mother and grandmother, he began pursuing dance. Through dance, Gorti found he had a passion for the performing arts—ultimately leading him to discovering his calling for musical theatre. The actor's big dreams earned him a spot at Point Park University’s Conservatory of the Performing Arts, took him all over the country to perform in large-scale regional theatre productions, and landed him his Broadway debut in Chicago in September 2021. 

Gorti is not his past—but it is a part of him that he has grown to be proud of. “I have learned to wear it as a badge of honor that I’ve made it this far, and that I did survive something like that,” he says. He hopes that sharing his story will inspire others who carry stories like his to pursue their dreams without fear of limit. “Because there are other people like me out there,” says Gorti.

Two-year-old Joey Walton is just like Jeff Gorti. In July 2022, Joey’s mother, Araya Walton, thought she was bringing her 7-month-old son to an eye doctor for a relatively low-stress check-up. She had noticed that Joey’s left eye was starting to turn inward. Being a healthcare worker herself, she assumed he had a lazy eye—which is fairly common in children under three. “[The doctor] looked into Joey’s eye...and he tells me his eye is very sick, to go straight to the emergency room, get an MRI, and talk to the doctors to see what’s going on,” says Walton. “All he said was, ‘the eye is sick’...and ‘don’t go home.’”

Walton did not take her son home for some time because just days later, after a number of stressful tests and insurance headaches, Joey was diagnosed with late-stage retinoblastoma—the same cancer that Gorti had at Joey’s age.

“In 24 hours, they wanted to remove my son’s eye. I didn’t want to do it—honestly, I didn’t,” exclaims Walton. She was heartbroken at the extremely quick life-altering decision she and her husband, James, had to make for their son. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘whatever we have to do to save Joey’s life, that’s what we’re going to do.” So that is what they did, and Joey was rushed to emergency surgery to remove his eye the very next day.

Though the doctors had removed the tumors, Joey’s fight for his life did not end there, says Walton: “I got a call two days later [to tell me] that a cell broke off from the tumor, and that he had to have six months of chemo.”

Araya Walton and her husband, James, with their two sons, Joey (left) and Jeremiah The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund

Joey’s cancer treatment heavily impacted the Walton family. Walton had to quit her job as an emergency medical technician in order to become Joey’s full-time caretaker. She had to take her oldest son, 10-year-old Jeremiah, out of school early each week so they could drive Joey to his out-of-state chemo appointments at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, her husband had to pick up more work back home so the family could maintain the health insurance needed for Joey’s treatment.

"It’s not only your child that you’re grieving for. When you go to chemo, you’re sitting around other children that are on chemo machines—children that have had their limbs removed, or have feeding tubes, brain tubes," explains Walton. "You’re meeting families who haven’t been home in nine months because they’re fighting for their kid’s life.” Tears started pooling in Walton’s eyes. “This has changed my life in a major way."

Joey finished his cancer treatment last December, and was confirmed cancer-free in September 2023. His remission is a huge sigh of relief for the Walton family, but the battle to full recovery is ongoing. “His tumor was really big—it stretched his lid when they removed the eye. Because of that he might have to have lid lift surgery so that we can try to get a prosthetic to get him to look as normal as possible,” says Walton. Joey also has to continue receiving MRIs every six months to make sure the cancer doesn't return. Furthermore, because of his compromised immune system, Joey cannot attend daycare or public school until he is fully healthy again. 

Upon finishing treatment, Joey’s social worker introduced his family to The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, an outreach foundation for families battling childhood cancer. The organization provides financial aid, wellness workshops, and emotional support. “It has been really instrumental in trying to make as much light come into my life as possible,” says Walton.

That light extended out to New York City and shone down on Jeff Gorti as well. At one of The Jay Fund’s recent wellness workshops, Walton connected with a Montclair reporter, who wrote an article about her family for the local newspaper. That article ended up in Gorti’s lap. He immediately wanted to connect with the Walton family and Joey. 

“I ended up calling Mrs. Walton and we talked for an hour,” he says. “She cried, I cried—and I think the thing that got me the most was talking to a family that’s currently going through a similar situation that my family went through. Little Joey went to same exact hospital that I did, went to the same place to get basically the same prosthetics— and just a very similar journey, fears and worry.”

During their phone call, Walton shared her worries with Gorti about Joey not having a normal life. “And I lost it,” says Gorti. “I was like, ‘I want you to come and see Chicago. It just so happens that I’m scheduled to play Billy next week, so I’d love for you to come. And if that just gives you even the slightest bit of hope, then amazing.’”

The next week, December 7, the musical’s entire cast and house management team rolled out the red carpet for the Walton family. They got to see Gorti exceeding a normal life, performing as a lead on Broadway. “It was amazing to see him in his element and to see just how awesome he was… and it just made me think that I can’t wait to see what happens with Joey,” says Walton. “I can’t wait to see him blow my mind like Jeff.”

Jeff Gorti and Joey Walton Julia Chambers

The Walton family’s wounds are still healing. But Walton is trying to look at what has come to pass with perspective and gratitude. Seeing Gorti in Chicago has definitely given her hope for the future. “It will forever stay with me as a memory I will always have and show." She admits her son may one day ask questions about why he is not like other kids, or doubting his own abilities. "And I’ll say to him, ‘There was a man named Jeff Gorti that’s just like you, and you met him. And I want this to inspire you to feel like you can do anything you put your mind to,’” she says. Walton knows that her son is going to be okay, because Gorti has shown her that he will be.

Most of all, she knows that Joey has someone to talk to if he is ever feeling alone. “It’s a very rare cancer that they face…Joey is the first child who Jeff’s met in 29 years. So that shows you how rare it is,” says Walton. “I’m sure Joey will probably be the only kid in school, the only kid in sports, the only kid with it—so he’s going to have to have some tough skin,” she adds. “But when it gets hard, he can always call Jeff.”

The Walton family gave Gorti a gift, as well. “I think this was one of my proudest moments…to do the thing I love—on Broadway— in front of a kid that went through something identical to what I went through,” he says. “I second guessed myself a lot growing up because I’m different…and I know [Joey’s] not 100 percent aware of it right now. But he will be, and I want him to know that anything can be possible.”

Gorti believes there is no limit to one's determination. He encourages anyone who has come out the other side of cancer to follow their dreams and believe that they are strong enough to face anything. “For people who have beaten cancer, you really can beat anything,” he says. “You’ve beaten your body. Now, mentally, you can beat anything life has to offer.”

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