Rick Ward: Pioneer Prostate Cancer Activist

Rick Ward, Prostate Cancer Awareness advocate, of Deer Lodge, Montana and San Antonio, TXRick Ward, of Deer Lodge, Montana and San Antonio,Texas, a pioneering prostate cancer awareness advocate and activist, died recently of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Rick, an Air Force veteran aged 71, will be remembered for his tremendous contribution to Seedpods brachytherapy mailing list, for his dedication to helping Veterans faced with cancer and other health problems, for popularizing the sky blue ribbon as an emblem of prostate cancer awareness, and for advocating for equitable funding for prostate cancer research.

Rick discovered he had prostate cancer at age 56 in September 1994 in Deer Lodge, Montana when a PSA test at a free screening clinic during Prostate Cancer Awareness Week came back at a high 14 ng/mL. He called the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-4CANCER; and as an early internet user, he joined one of the start-up online mailing lists.

About 14 months after researching his treatment options he underwent brachytherapy, hormonal therapy and external-beam radiation therapy. As a veteran Rick received his treatment at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

By June 1996 Rick was writing to sci.med.prostate.cancer to let people know about the Seedpods mailing list created by mathematics professor Gary Huckabay in Oklahoma. "SeedPods has grown from a few patients emailing back and forth with cc's to allow all to keep up," he wrote, "to a formal, though hand operated, mailing list, to, as of 6/1/96, a permanent home on Gary Huckabay's Prostate Pointers site operated by his new list server software, Majordomo."

As a daily contributor to online prostate cancer support and advocacy Rick Ward became legendary for his knowledge and commitment. He had a deep genuine sense of brotherhood among men affected by this disease and expressed admiration for the women who shared their lives. He always upheld the highest standards of evidence-based accuracy and reliability in everything he contributed. He is remembered as a straight-shooter, who knew his subject matter and was "one hell of a man."

Rick's efforts never ended with his emails. He reached out to state and federal legislators in an effort to raise funding for prostate cancer research to parity with funding for breast cancer research. He helped win recognition for a Prostate Cancer Awareness symbol and saw it go into production. He promoted Prostate Cancer Awareness Week (PCAW) --which he believed had saved him from metastatic prostate cancer. He helped turn that one week into a month. He supported prostate cancer research fund raisers like Debbie Baker's Cruisin' For A Cure car show. And he helped Vietnam Veterans receive due medical benefits for exposure to Agent Orange.

Ever vigilant, in December 2008 Rick commented on an article in Government Executive about suspension of brachytherapy use at four hospitals following exposure of botched procedures. Rick wrote:

Brachytherapy is at its core skill-intensive. Though not stated in the article, apparently the standard measure of individual brachytherapy treatment, the dose-volume histogram (DVH), fell below acceptable levels, usually 90% of the planned dose. This is deplorable, but it shouldn't deny veterans access to brachytherapy treatment for their prostate cancer. In each of the cities where the VA program was closed down there are brachytherapy practitioners of proven capability that the veterans can be contracted out to, and who could provide remedial training.

If the VA brachytherapy programs at these VAs were provided by university medical departments, the problem may lie with the use of veterans as training cases for residents, with inadequate supervision. That, unfortunately, happens often in the VA-university lash-ups.

Fix the immediate problem so veterans have uninterrupted access to brachytherapy for prostate cancer, but investigate thoroughly what the underlying cause was, then fix that.

Rick and I last exchanged emails in May and June this year. COPD was advancing, pneumonia was taking a toll, he decided it was time for home hospice. He felt he had one more PCa task on his roster -- to pass on his Awareness Ribbon project. After a search he was able to put it in the hands of Jim Dorsey and Rick Brown, who preserved the existing contact information and website. Rick wrote:

At this point all stock has been transferred and the website turned over to the new team very seamlessly, with orders already being filled by them . . .

Jim Dorsey is a Canadian, already involved in Debbie Baker's Cruisin' For A Cure car show (working on at least his second CFAC show in Ontario). He has many car club members in New York, so he teamed with one of them, Rick Brown in Lewiston, to operate the pin biz. These are dedicated men and both business men in their own rights.

It's been a great relief to me to get this outcome. I feel I can more comfortably meet my departure with an easy heart.

Rick was a courageous and extraordinarily conscientious person. This was part of what made him so rigorous. I still recall his reaction when I babbled naively about making a blue ribbon bookmark icon (a so called "fav" icon) to use in browser windows. I figured he might like to use it too. Rick said "Nice, but no cigar."

In one minor triumph of his habitual meticulousness, Rick announced the PANTONE® number for the exact shade of sky blue that he and a colleague had picked out for the enameled metal Prostate Cancer Awareness Ribbon Pin approved and adopted by Michael Milken's CaP CURE (now called Prostate Cancer Foundation). Concerned that this was too light, I yelled at him this was not sky blue. Rick yelled back, I'm standing under the blue Montana sky and it's the EXACT same shade!

Rick's call to rally behind the new pin and move forward, Blue Ribbon For Awareness (November 1999), was part and parcel of his productive, Just DO It! attitude.

Those were days building campaigns that now we take for granted while watching others deconstruct them -- as when National Prostate Cancer Coalition switched to calling itself Project Zero and decided to use red as the color of its campaigns. In a couple of his final posts to Seedpods, in October 2008, Rick expressed skepticism of big prostate cancer organizations' commitment to raising awareness. But he never lost his own sense of urgency. His remarkable dispassion in gathering and conveying information was the other side of his passion for making a difference.

Intense and long-term as Rick Ward's devotion to helping more men to survive prostate cancer was, this was just one part of his life. The Vietnam war, I think, was another 800 pound gorilla in Rick's consciousness. And although he went into the insurance business at one point, before that war he was passionate about writing. In 1997 we exchanged notes on life before his involvement with PCa. He told me that as a graduate student at (if I recall) Ann Arbor, he studied literature and creative writing. I wish I still had that email. Rest in peace, Rick.


Seedpods Mailing List -- Brachytherapy - radioactive seed implants - for the treatment of prostate cancer

What Is COPD?

Prostate Cancer Awareness Net (ribbons and wristbands)

If you are considering brachytherapy and want to form an impression of what good peer-to-peer patient/survivor discussion is like, join Seedpods and check out Rick Ward's 21 posts in 2006.

Choice of a Lifetime By PAUL ENGSTROM The Wall Street Journal March 19, 2001, reprinted at pheonix5.org