Stories from Survivors
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Emily Ward was a widely admired, long-time pleural mesothelioma survivor – an inspiration to so many – but never in her own eyes. She lived to help others, focusing on the problems they faced while often downplaying her own.
Ward, a contributing writer for The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, died May 15. She never wanted to be the center of attention, right to the end of her life. At her request, no funeral service was held.
“She was the kind of person who wanted to focus her time on helping others rather than on her own limitations and disease,” said Karen Selby, registered nurse and Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. “She touched so many people through her unselfishness.”
Mesothelioma Didn’t Change Her
Ward lived most of her life in Maine and spent 43 years in the nursing profession, where she loved taking care of others. Her personal life was much the same, serving as primary caregiver for her husband, who died after a lengthy illness. She became a surrogate mother to a niece and nephew after her younger brother’s wife died from cancer.
Only months before she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, Ward flew to Wyoming to spend the final few weeks before her death with a good friend.
“She was one of the most thoughtful people I’ve known, and her kindness was unmatched,” said Sean Marchese, oncology medical writer and registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center. “I’ll never forget her passion for improving the lives of others and the joy it brought her.”
Ward lived almost 10 years after being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer with no cure, and far exceeded the 12- to 15-month median survival. The last decade may have slowed her, but it barely changed her.
“She was a straight shooter who never met a stranger. And she was never afraid to share her story to help others,” said Tamron Little, both a survivor and writer for The Mesothelioma Center. “Her love of life was incredible.”
Emily Ward (middle) with sister-in-law Bethany and friend Nora.
Ward Credited Survival to Sugarbaker
Ward has been described as witty, intelligent, straightforward and passionate, always willing and able to provide advice and direction in her own unique way.
She often credited her unusually long survival to mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker and the aggressive surgery he performed on her shortly after her diagnosis in 2012. Sugarbaker often credited her in return.
It was shortly before her surgery that she first contacted The Mesothelioma Center. She intended to just ask a few questions but ended up providing instruction and guidance to many over the years.
Ward participated in symposiums, question-and-answer sessions and mesothelioma webinars, all designed to help others who were living with a similar diagnosis. Instead of being one of the listeners, though, she became one of the speakers.
In one of her earlier chats, still recovering from major surgery, she mentioned the dull pain in her chest that never receded, the foggy brain that clouded her thinking and the nagging uncertainty of when cancer would return.
But the worst part of surgery, she said, was being without her four fun-loving, frolicking dachshunds, who were staying with someone else while she recovered.
Ward made others smile. She helped fellow patients. She assisted the nurses on staff. She became a national advocate.
“Her work as a mesothelioma survivor aided countless people in finding hope after their diagnosis. She was tenacious in her beliefs,” Marchese said. “She never stopped doing what she loved. And I’ll always cherish my talks with Emily. I learned from her.”
Emily Ward with her nephew Tyler at his wedding in 2020.
Her Life Was an Inspiration to All
Not only did she become an advocate for mesothelioma patients everywhere, but Ward continued to lead an active life at home in Cornish, Maine, relishing her interactions with others.
She worked part-time as a pharmacy tech, seeing many of the people she once treated as a nurse. She volunteered with several service organizations around town, joined the local community board and spent time as a lodging manager at a quaint hotel in the country.
At least one day a week, Ward worked at a local gymnasium, often using the equipment before she left.
“She showed me how important it was to live every day to its fullest,” Marchese said. “She didn’t believe in celebrating holidays, because she knew every day was worth treasuring.”
At the same time, Ward was quietly battling cancer recurrence. The mesothelioma returned more than once. Each time she fought it off.
She tried several different mesothelioma treatments through the years, some old and some new. Some worked initially, then stopped working. She wasn’t afraid to try.
Ward celebrated the latest immunotherapy combination of Opdivo and Yervoy when it stopped the tumor growth, but its staying power was limited.
In a 2020 blog for The Mesothelioma Center, Ward touched on her legacy and the importance of mesothelioma awareness.
“I believe we can increase awareness and change the course of how mesothelioma is viewed — replacing fear with hope,” she wrote. “If my diagnosis and experience with mesothelioma can be documented and used as a case study that ultimately helps other patients, I’ll count that as a victory.”
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