John Ward has a lot to live for.
That’s one of the many things he’s thinking about these days as he undergoes treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for serious health problems.
The first signs of trouble were set aside as minor issues.
While spending time in Florida this past winter, Ward started to lose his energy and was short of breath. He had minor chest pains or feelings akin to heartburn, which made him think of previous heart symptoms when he was in the state Legislature in 2013 and 2014. In those years, he had significant health issues and five surgeries, came up with sepsis and, with all of that, also had heart issues treated with implants of stents.
So when the energy was sapped during a challenging time during the pandemic, Ward kept it to himself.
“So, but being, you know, being a man, I didn't say anything to Sally or anybody else,” Ward said of his wife. He didn’t want to goof up their Florida time or go into a hospital there. “So I didn't say anything, and then a little, a little bit later I developed a cough, a significant chronic intense cough, hoarseness in my voice and swallowing issues.”
So in April, the longtime area state legislator and current Baxter City Council member checked in with his cardiologist in St. Cloud. While the previous stents were still doing their work to keep things flowing, an angiogram found three blockages in his heart in need of bypasses.
It wasn’t the diagnosis Ward or his wife Sally were ready to hear, but they accepted it and were prepared to get on with the treatment. But then there was the issue of that persistent cough. The shortness of breath and chest pain weren’t as pronounced but the cough, hoarseness and swallowing issues remained. The heart surgeon said they couldn’t do the bypass with the intense chronic cough so they decided to tackle that issue first by going to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
After many tests, they found an infection in the upper throat and tried to deal with it with medication. Things got better. But as soon as Ward ran out of medication, the symptoms returned. On July 9, an endoscopy found the cause — esophageal cancer. With his double diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus and the need for heart bypass surgery, a good friend referred him to a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. The first week in August, the Wards met with a host of medical professionals, had diagnostic testing, scans, and blood work done.
"But I also know that I've got more to do. ... I know that there are things that I need to do. ... There are things that give me purpose in thinking about the future."
— John Ward
Ward’s diagnosis was stage 3 adenocarcinoma and, while it hadn’t moved to other organs, it had penetrated the outer wall of the esophagus. The course of treatment involves radiation Monday through Friday and chemotherapy twice a week for five weeks. Then Ward can give his body a four to six week rest before undergoing an esophagectomy, where the entire esophagus is removed along with half of the stomach to create a new esophagus and the remainder of the stomach is pulled up through the diaphragm and attached.
“Obviously it’s an intense surgery,” Ward said during a telephone interview Thursday from Mayo. “The reason they need to do that is because the cancer that I have is a very aggressive cancer.”
Ward said the scans can’t show if there are remaining microscopic cancer cells and the concern is that some cancer could be left and come back. The rate of survival is greatly increased by removing the esophagus in combination with the radiation and chemotherapy.
But for Ward, it’s the other concern, the one that led him to seek medical attention in the first place, that now comes back into play.
“What about my heart?” he said. “What about the three blockages because chemo, radiation, and surgery are higher risk if you have heart issues, if you have like what I have — three blockages. The biggest concern is, can my heart take all of that? There is a higher risk of having a heart episode with radiation and chemo, but not as great as with the esophagectomy surgery. There is a significant higher risk with that surgery.”
The next question was whether to do the bypass surgery first given those concerns. It’s a question the Wards and their friends asked.
“That's a great question but the answer is not so great,” Ward said.
The heart bypass is expected to take nine to 12 months for full recovery before another surgery was advised.
“If I wait nine to 12 months, this cancer is aggressive enough that it is likely that I might live to be able to deal with the cancer. So we're really caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Ward started the radiation and chemotherapy treatment. They’ll reevaluate later to see if his heart is strong enough to handle more.
So while it’s a tough diagnosis, Ward said his wife and friends remind him he’s been a fighter all his life who overcame many things, including the challenges of being born with a deformed arm. He said he’s really been blessed in his life with a great teaching and coaching career, great wife and family and wonderful friends.
“But I also know that I've got more to do. ... I know that there are things that I need to do. ... There are things that give me purpose in thinking about the future.”
Ward said he wants to watch his grandchildren learn to ski in the lakes area and continue to serve the community.
“So let me just say this about Mayo,” Ward said. “It is absolutely an unbelievable place … Nobody's complaining about wearing masks or being vaccinated or being right or being wrong, or a Democratic or being a Republican. Everybody is here to help each other. And Sally and I often look at each other and say, ‘Are we in a different world?’ I mean it's just like, there's so much care and compassion and love and acceptance and help down here.”
Ward said it has given them hope and faith in a difficult situation.
But Ward’s emotions were tapped most and his voice caught when he talked about the outpouring of support, love and prayers he's received from so many people, it’s been overwhelming. He said “Thank you” didn’t seem strong enough for something they feel so appreciative of on the receiving end.
“I can honestly feel the prayers as I'm going through, you know, all of this stuff,” he said.
He continues his daily routine of walking 2.5 miles every morning and has been encouraged to continue that as best he can. Friday morning was the first time he felt sick with the treatment, but anti-nausea medication helped. Ward said his wife of 47 years is the best support person, nurse, partner, spouse, friend and love he could have. She is a cancer survivor who has been cancer free for 18 years herself. They attended their daughter’s wedding last week.
“I'm ready to battle. I'm ready to fight. I've never been a quitter, I'm not gonna be a quitter, but I'm gonna fight like hell to beat this beast,” Ward said.
Ward, a retired teacher and coach and a former insurance agent, served in the state Legislature for eight years. He is a former mayor of his hometown of Proctor. In 2020, he ran a successful write-in campaign after Baxter City Council member Todd Holman did not seek reelection.
“I can't stress enough how thankful and appreciative and blessed we are with the support that we've had,” Ward said. “I mean daily, Sally and I are brought to tears with something that somebody does special for us, and it's just heartwarming. … I'm thankful for those back home that are helping us to take care of things at home. You know our kids, our neighbors. You know, thankful for the … city council members who are plugging away and doing the job in my absence. And you know, just everything that's going on back home is important and we're appreciative of the help that we've been getting from everybody on that end.”
A cancer diagnosis can bring some things into clearer focus.
"I can honestly feel the prayers as I'm going through, you know, all of this stuff."
— John Ward
“That cancer word does give you a whole new perspective on life,” Ward said, adding it reaffirms living life to the fullest and doing everything you can to get to the next day. It also puts a perspective on divisions, being respectful, kind, courteous to one another and trying to walk in someone else’s shoes, Ward said, adding and then you fight like crazy to do what you can to get to the next day.
The Wards have four children and 11 grandchildren.
“I want to see my kids get old, and my grandkids grow up. So I keep that in the back of my mind, that’s my goal, you know, to be able to witness that, and spend more time with Sal and family and friends, so that's the goal.”