Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones talks about beating cancer

Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones talks about beating cancer

Credit: The Charlotte Observer

Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones talks about beating cancer


by APRIL BETHEA / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on June 19, 2012 at 3:47 PM

Harry Jones was keeping a secret.

Just before Christmas, Mecklenburg’s longtime county manager learned he had cancer.

But outside of family, few knew all he was facing. Publicly, Jones, 62, said only that he would soon get intensive treatment for a medical condition.

In the weeks that followed, buoyed in part by renewed spirituality, Jones contemplated sharing more.

In February, he reached out to U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte, who had survived breast cancer more than a decade earlier. She took his 10 p.m. call and, after praying with him, encouraged him to be more open.

The next day, in an email to colleagues, he named his condition: pancreatic cancer.

The response, Jones said, was overwhelming.

County employees sent cards and letters. People who were once strangers became friends. And six months after his diagnosis, Jones, a man usually reserved about his personal life, is contemplating going on a speaking tour with Cynthia Marshall. Marshall, AT&T’s top executive in North Carolina, recently battled colon cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is often aggressive and fatal. But even though Jones has been told his type of pancreatic cancer is incurable, he says his faith and the support he has received has him feeling great. His oncologist says Jones has done exceedingly well so far in his treatment.

“I want you to understand that I sincerely understand the severity of my diagnosis,” Jones said. “But ... I want to tell you I feel healed. I don’t feel any pain. I don’t feel anything that would make you characterize me as being sick.”

‘My soul has been restored’

The son of an Army officer, Jones and his family lived in many places before settling in Southern Pines when he was a teen. His 84-year-old mother still lives there.

Jones has worked for Mecklenburg County for two decades – as manager since 2000. He oversees a $1 billion-plus budget and more than 4,000 employees. Such high-profile jobs often bring high stress, though Jones said he never struggled with major health troubles.

Late last summer, though, he began noticing gastrointestinal problems. Earlier, he had started taking medicine for acid reflux. His doctors also put him on a diet.

But by early December, he called his physician for an appointment. “There’s something going on with my body,” he told his doctor.

He visited on a Friday. By Monday, CAT scan results revealed a small mass on the tail of his pancreas.

The final cancer diagnosis was made on Dec. 22. The news was devastating, says his wife, Becky, who had speculated he might have an ulcer. Cancer, she says, “was just such a shock because it was totally just out of the blue.”

The first few days, Jones thought of his mortality. He worried about providing for his family. He contemplated whether to retire.

On Christmas Eve, two days after the diagnosis, Jones was walking his dog and listening to music. Suddenly, he began reciting a Bible verse he’d memorized decades ago.

“Have faith in God,” it begins, “... and whosoever believe in his heart and shall not doubt shall have whatsoever he ask for.”

Though he’d always been a believer, Jones didn’t attend church or read Scriptures regularly.

But he saw the moment of recalling the verse as a sign. The next week, Bishop George Battle counseled him to read Psalm 139 daily. Jones did. One night, the Biblical passages ran through his mind as he slept.

“You hear people say ‘God talked to me,’ ” Jones says. “I woke up that next morning and I told my wife that I was healed. I said I felt that my soul has been restored.”

More changes have followed. Jones joined Little Rock AME Zion Church on Easter. He reads the Bible daily, and has prayers posted throughout his home and on his desk at work.

An aggressive disease

In his initial public remarks about his health, Jones said his treatments might require him to take temporary medical leave. He even named another colleague who would step in as acting manager if needed.

Dr. Reza Nazemzadeh, Jones’ oncologist at the Levine Cancer Institute, calls his prescribed chemotherapy treatment the most aggressive for pancreatic cancer.

In January, he began with 5 1/2-hour infusion sessions, followed by 46 hours of wearing a chemo pump. He repeated the process every two weeks.

Jones anticipated side effects, but so far says he’s not felt any nausea or other lingering ills.

He still exercises – including doing wind sprints up and down his driveway – and golfs regularly. He hasn’t missed work. And the treatments have evolved. He now gets 2-hour infusions followed by two weeks of chemo pills. Then he has a week without treatment.

He’s set to start another round Tuesday.

Pancreatic cancer is the second most-common gastrointestinal cancer. About 43,000 people are diagnosed each year, and about 37,000 die. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze both died of the cancer.

“Typically this is a disease that can behave very aggressively, and make people very sick very quickly,” Dr. Nazemzadeh said. “He has done exceedingly well in that his disease has been very well-controlled with the treatment.”

Redefining ‘incurable’

Jones has been documenting his experiences in a journal. And he’d like to go on a speaking tour with Marshall.

Marshall wants them to share the good and the bad of their journeys, and serve as a resource for patients and family members. Echoing words her mother said after Marshall was diagnosed, she has told Jones she thinks God wants them to help others.

“We’re going to be the voice for people who don’t have the pulpit, if you will,” Marshall says.

That’s why Myrick urged Jones to be more specific about his diagnosis. Two decades ago, people were afraid to talk about cancer, she says. But as more opened up, more support followed.

“The more people who do that, with any kind of cancer, to me is valuable,” Myrick said. “To me it says to other people, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ ”

Jones has made a conscious effort to “step out on faith, not fear.”

Becky Jones – whom Harry Jones calls his “Florence Nightingale” – says her husband’s fighter mentality has spread to the rest of the family.

After the initial shock, the family went ahead with an annual Christmas party and talent show. She and Harry sang Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” It was their best Christmas ever, she says. And from then on, the family had a ‘We’re going to beat this’ attitude.

“It has become our family motto,” she says. “We are going to live, laugh and love. That’s what we’re going to do now, and in the future.”

Jones says he told his doctor he didn’t want to hear his prognosis. And he doesn’t read websites that could have negative statistics.

“That’s irrelevant to me because there’s only one statistic that matters to me,” Jones says, “and that’s mine.”

Jones said CAT scans show the tumor on his pancreas is shrinking.

And while he’s been told his pancreatic cancer is incurable, “my goal is to redefine that notion.”