Courtney Ward’s cancer is so rare it took her 10 months just to find a support group. And then it was only a virtual support group on Facebook: a page called Rare But There.
Courtney was only the 201st woman to join the page. They call each other the cancer sisters. The bond these sisters share: neuroendocrine cervical cancer.
“This is a rare, aggressive cervical cancer….but we are rare, aggressive women!” the page announces.
This is true.
Courtney, by all accounts, is a rare woman, not so much aggressive, as crazy strong and determined.
Fourteen months ago, the Orange County Sheriff’s deputy was patrolling the streets of San Clemente. Today, she struggles just walking from her bed to the car.
But she is fighting her butt off.
Courtney’s journey began after she went to the doctor for unusually heavy bleeding. They found a polyp on her cervix. In surgery, they found a golf-ball-size tumor in her cervix. It is not your typical cervical cancer; it can’t be found with a pap smear.
In fact, this type of tumor, called a small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, normally nestles into the lungs. But rarely it hides in the cervix. And when it does, it has a 10-20 percent survival rate.
It’s so rare that there is no research funding for it, no trials; so doctors have no idea why people get it or how to stop it. It moves so fast it has been described as a brush fire.
“In the first appointment I was told, ‘We don’t know how to treat you,’” recalls Courtney, 35.
So they gave her a high dose of chemotherapy. And then two new tumors showed up in her pelvis. Twenty-eight sessions of radiation followed. And it metastasized to her liver. And then it spread to her lungs.
“Right now I’m clinically terminal,” Courtney says. “At this point no woman has survived.”
But if she goes, she’s going to go out swinging, dammit.
And that’s why she flew to Maryland, a few weeks ago, to sign up for an immunotherapy trial.
They will wipe out her entire immune system with chemo and then repopulate it with her own “super T-cells” (that doctors sucked out and souped up) in hopes that they will attack the tumors.
The therapy has successfully killed some cancers. She will be the first neuroendocrine patient to try it.
It is exciting. And terrifying. It will be hell on her body, and she is already exhausted.
Talking about it is the first time she cries.
“I’m in pain. I’m tired. My doctors have a joke now that nothing goes our way.”
So if the only thing that goes her way is that entering the trial helps find a cure, she’s in. If she’s the one cured, all the better.
Last week, she says, was about her worst week in the past 14 months.
“But you gotta pick yourself up and get after it,” she says.
Her faith has been a huge part of her journey. On Sunday, Feb. 28, she got herself out of her bed in Mission Viejo and went to Crossline Community Church in Laguna Hills to see inspirational speaker Nick Vujicic. Born with no arms or legs, he is founder of the global ministry Life Without Limits.
Afterward he met with her for a few minutes.
Courtney told him that everyone wants her to be positive and sometimes it’s hard.
“He was like. ‘Let’s be real. You can’t always be positive. It’s impossible. More importantly is to have real hope.’
“Not necessarily hope I’ll be cured,” she says. “It’s bigger than that. He gave me permission to feel what I feel. I needed to hear that. The bigger picture is my focus.”
The bigger picture.
Tustin’s annual Leprechaun Leap 5k is set for Sunday, March 13 at The District. The annual run “through the hangars” raises money for a handful of charities, but this year there is also a code (RAREBUTTHERE) that you can select so that your donation goes to neuroendocrine cervical cancer research at University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Courtney’s first partner at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Deputy De Anne Wigginton, worked with Tustin to make it happen.
Courtney’s husband, Dave, who she calls “my rock,” will push her in a wheelchair, surrounded by at least 200 family and friends (who have already signed up). Her UCI oncologist will be among them. And you can be, too.
If you go to her Facebook page, No One Fights Alone – Courtney Ward, you can also buy a T-shirt her husband designed.
It shows a badge with a cancer ribbon wrapped around it.
“It embraces my career and my cancer,” says Courtney, who has became a deputy in 2007. “My partners are always gonna have my back.”
No. 18 is on the badge, signifying the OC Sheriff’s Department station number.
The T-shirt also has a fist emoji, which Courtney calls “my boom fist,” which she uses on text messages.
“I’m gonna beat this cancer up,” she says. “It might be rare, but it doesn’t mean that women don’t deserve a frickin’ fighting chance. The only way that’s gonna change is through research and funding.”
Her plan: To start a foundation that raises money to do just that. And raises awareness.
“From January until October I knew no one who had my cancer. It’s a very alone feeling. Seriously, if I can just raise enough money to make a pamphlet so that every gynecologist in the country can say, ‘Here, there is support out there for you. You’re not alone.”