On February 2nd, 2022 the Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors announced that Chief Mark Matthews is “out on medical leave and will not be returning.” This is the second time in his career Matthews left his position citing health issues, a topic he speaks of often.
In October 2017 Matthews resigned as the fire chief for the Palominas Fire District in Arizona due to a cancer diagnosis. District board of directors informed the public of the chief’s ill health in a Herald Review article. At the time, the district was “under investigation” and employees were being questioned about a series of suspicious fires that previous January.
I spoke with two firefighters who worked for Matthews at the time, as well as a long-time friend, about his cancer diagnosis. Both firefighters recall Matthews speaking at length about his illness. “It was really serious. I mean he was dying for sure. He was my boss, you know? I felt bad for the guy,” one of the men told me. The other agreed, saying, “I just remember it being stage four. I don’t remember what kind of cancer it was, but I do remember that. Stage four. It’s just a scary thing to hear, how can you forget?”
A long-time friend of Matthews remembers similar details. Speaking on condition of anonymity, this person recalls Matthews sharing the devastating news one evening just before the 2017 retirement announcement. “I just remember him saying ‘cancer’. Stage four. I was so shocked. I had no idea what to say.”
Two more professional associates of Matthews in Pioneer, as well as a former Pioneer board member, also recall Mathews speaking about his cancer diagnosis. All three told me that Matthews informed them he had been diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. “He said the doctors told him he was going to die. It was this terrible throat cancer. He said it was stage four. But, you know, he got better and moved here,” the former Pioneer board member told me in an interview.
According to the National Cancer Institute, pharyngeal cancer, commonly known as throat cancer, is a cancer of the tube that runs from the nose to the esophagus. The most common forms of pharyngeal cancer affect the tonsils and back of the tongue or an area just behind the voice box. Stage four would be the most severe diagnosis, with cancer having spread to lymph nodes and different parts of the head, neck, or chest.
Stage four pharyngeal cancer requires aggressive treatment which can include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Often times with cancer this advanced all or parts of the larynx or pharynx must be removed, which affects the patient’s ability to swallow, breathe, or speak normally, according to the National Cancer Institute. With treatment, just under 40% of patients with stage four pharyngeal cancer survive more than four years after diagnosis.
During my January interview with Matthews, he mentioned his ill health repeatedly He also wanted to make clear that he retired from Palominas due to his health, not because of the investigations into him by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department. “I resigned there due to my health. I was unable to due my job as chief because of my health.”
Two and a half months after announcing his retirement in Palominos due to cancer, Matthews applied for the open position of Fire Chief in Pioneer. Not long after being hired, Matthews spoke with a reporter from the Mountain Democrat about his cancer. In the article, Matthews again mentions that he left the Palominas Fire District due to a cancer diagnosis.
In our interview, I mentioned to Matthews that I would like to write the story about his recovery. “It’s remarkable, from stage four throat cancer to healed in two and a half months? This is a story that needs to be told,” I said. But Matthews pushed back, saying, “No, no it wasn’t like that. When I was employed down there (Palominas) I was being treated the entire time. I didn’t recover quickly. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Matthews speaks often of his health concerns. Two of the Pioneer associates I spoke with told me that in early 2021 Matthews told them he was “dying of cancer.” Just days after the Caldor Fire, Matthews spoke at a public meeting about having a “rare” and deadly disease. Indeed, in our own interview this past January Matthews said, “My health is not that great…I need to spend the rest of my life with my family so I can enjoy what little time I have left.”
When I pressed for more information, Matthews asked to go off the record.
With a devastating diagnosis of stage four throat cancer in 2017, followed by years of ill health, I reached out to the board of directors in Pioneer to ask whether Matthews was ever prompted to provide medical verification showing he was fit to continue performing his duties. His health issues could explain his behavior when fighting the Caldor Fire. I have not yet received a response.
All of the sources I spoke with for this story have expressed concern for Matthews’ health, as well as the hope that he is again able to recover.