Jefferson Ward: The joy lives

Jeff Ward isn't trying to be Lance Armstrong or anything, but, like the Tour de France winner, he's lucky to be alive.

The 34-year-old former UVA football player had a nasty surprise early this year. After his usual run one day, he started coughing up blood. What he thought was strep throat turned out to be the extremely rare and extremely deadly cancer of the throat and tongue.

"It's real unusual," he says, "especially for people who don't smoke." Ninety percent of those diagnosed with oral cancer are over 40.

His family was told he had Stage 4 cancer. "He had an advanced stage," says his doctor, Cynthia Spaulding. "It's very unusual to see in people that young." Spaulding pegs the cure rate at one in five.

Ward remembers the exact dates he was in Martha Jefferson Hospital: January 26 through April 20, the day after his birthday. And as if spending three months in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiation wasn't bad enough, he says, his girlfriend dumped him, too. "I was lying up there days on end thinking she's gonna walk through that door," he recalls. "She didn't."

Ward is frank about the treatment's effect on him: "Chemo did its damage to me. It crushed me."

Certainly it shrank the athlete's 240-pound body to what is now just getting back up to 187 pounds. And Ward is undergoing therapy to improve use of his left arm, which was affected during surgery on his lymph nodes. But the feeding tube in his stomach is gone, and he's able to eat and taste food again, unlike when he was sick and couldn't swallow.

And he's feeling stronger, which is a good thing for a man who holds down three jobs: working as a bartender at Sloan's, at the Carmike, and in a part-time business in financial sales.

Ward doesn't seem bummed by the fact that even with insurance, he owes $22,000 for his medical treatment. At least he's saving money on life insurance premiums that was canceled and he's uninsurable for two years.

After staring death in the face, Ward says the cancer has enlightened him. "I'm more attentive now to the means and surroundings of other people's lives besides my own."

Ward isn't out of the woods yet he still faces monthly checkups– but he seems ready for whatever comes next. "If God can help me overcome death, there's no other challenges I can't meet," he says.

And Jefferson Ward is adamant about one thing: "Nobody can steal my joy."