Editor’s Note: ASCO was deeply saddened by the news that Dr. Jeff Ward passed away on November 3, 2022. In an interview with Dr. Ward this past summer, published in ASCO Connection (August 30, 2022), ASCO recognized Dr. Ward’s commitment to exceptional patient care and public advocacy. An abbreviated version of the interview is reprinted here in The ASCO Post. To read the complete interview, visit connection.asco.org.
Greatness in medicine, or any field, often starts with unlikely beginnings. For Jeffery Ward, MD, FASCO, his career in oncology began with an English paper that he had to write during his senior year at Ephrata High School in eastern Washington state. “I knew if I was going to get an A on my senior thesis, then I needed to write about something that my teacher had never heard about before,” Dr. Ward said. “So, I went to my advanced biology teacher to get ideas and he said, ‘Have you ever heard about chimeric DNA?’”
Jeffery Ward, MD, FASCO
That question led to a career in oncology that has helped improve the lives of thousands of patients with cancer and their families. Dr. Ward’s English teacher had never heard of chimeric DNA, but neither had Dr. Ward himself, because molecular biology was an emerging and controversial field in the 1970s. To get the A, Dr. Ward learned everything he could to fully understand it as he wrote the paper.
“My teacher wrote at the top, ‘This is the most fascinating paper. I’ve never heard anything about this before,’ and that got me interested in science,” said Dr. Ward.
In the decades that followed, Dr. Ward forged a career in oncology helping improve the quality of life for patients with cancer in both Washington State and nationally, both through his clinical care and through his advocacy and consensus-building on complex and controversial issues. This commitment to fully understanding every aspect of care and developing solutions has been the guiding focus of his service both in his work as a medical hematologist and oncologist with the Swedish Cancer Institute and his role as a former president and board member of the Washington State Medical Oncology Society (WSMOS).
“His ability to understand the whole oncology care system and how health care works is really just amazing. When we come to together as a state society to discuss our approach to a given piece of legislation, we all kind of wait for what Jeff does because he’s always so insightful,” said Blair Irwin, MD, WSMOS, President and Medical Director of MultiCare Regional Cancer Center, Tacoma, Washington.
Dr. Ward has also provided countless hours of service to ASCO. He served for 10 years as an associate editor of JCO Oncology Practice and for decades on numerous committees.
Two Ways to Beat Cancer: A Life in Oncology
When it came time for Dr. Ward to pick a major at Brigham Young University, he chose microbiology. By his third year, he was fully fascinated with medicine and decided to pursue it, enrolling at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“When we hit the patient wards, I realized that although I really enjoyed science, I loved taking care of patients. At that point, my emphasis switched from research more toward patient care,” he said.
A number of significant events led Dr. Ward to oncology. One in particular occurred when he was an intern at the University of Minnesota Medical Center on October 25, 1987. During his service rounds, Dr. Ward took the time to sit with a patient, a fourth-year medical student struggling with terminal testicular cancer and watch the Minnesota Twins beat the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series.
“His room had a view of the Metrodome, and we could faintly hear the screams of the crowds. That moment, along with additional rotations in oncology and BMT, cemented in my mind the idea that there were two ways to beat cancer. One way was to be cured. The other was to live a life such that if one died, [they] could say they were proud of the life they chose to live and had not been beaten by the cancer,” said Dr. Ward.
After staying in Minnesota for his fellowship, Dr. Ward and his family moved back to Washington, where he joined a small private oncology practice in Edmonds. A few years later, the practice merged with another group and joined what is now US Oncology. They stayed with US Oncology for roughly 10 years before becoming a foundation practice supported by Swedish Medical Center and then a division of the Swedish Cancer Institute Not long after, the Swedish Cancer Institute merged with Providence Healthcare. This experience has given Dr. Ward a firsthand view of the challenges faced in a variety of practice settings: private practice, a large national oncology practice, a community hospital, and a large nonprofit health-care consortium.
In addition, Dr. Ward has helped patients live life the way they wish by serving as the medical director of Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County for the past 28 years. Founded in 1978, it provides comprehensive medical care in patients’ homes, helping them and their families work toward medical rehabilitation or a peaceful and dignified death.
Living Life the Way He Chooses
Dr. Ward was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma in early 2022. After going through all treatment options, Dr. Ward chose to spend his remaining time with his family.
“Cancer has been such a big part of my career, but now it has become an even bigger part of my life. I’ve given this consideration and have decided not to pursue a treatment that likely would have me spend much of the rest of my life in hotels and hospitals away from my home,” he said.
Dr. Ward’s positive impact in cancer care will be felt for decades to come—by the patients he has cared for directly, as well as their loved ones, by the colleagues he has supported and mentored, and by everyone who will benefit from the health-care policies that he advocated for and helped bring to fruition.
Reprinted from ASCO Connection, August 30, 2022. © 2022 American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.