ODU Athletics

Get the Max With Minium: Jones Shows Courage in Going Public with Cancer Recurrence

September 05, 2018
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

There is no NCAA rule that requires a coach to make a public announcement when he or she is sick.

That’s one reason why I admired Old Dominion basketball coach Jeff Jones so much in 2015 when he announced he’d had surgery and radiation for prostate cancer.

Not unlike breast cancer for women, prostate cancer attacks the very organs that, rightly or wrongly, many think define your manhood. I can relate to that, since I’m also a prostate cancer survivor.

It’s such a personal, intimate disease that few men speak about it. Jones spoke out to encourage men to get tested, and from the feedback he’s gotten, hundreds of men have listened to his advice.

But I admire Jones even now that he had the courage to announce Wednesday that his cancer has recurred.

In spite of radiation and surgery, tests indicate prostate cancer is growing in his body. He’s upbeat and says the cancer won’t affect how he coaches. He plans to coach throughout the remaining four years on his contract, and modern medicine may allow him to do so.

But there’s no sugarcoating that this was a setback for the 58-year-old who recently became a grandfather. He has a particularly aggressive form of cancer that likely can be controlled for years with medication. But for how many years, no one really knows. There is no known cure.

Radiation is no longer an option – it can only be used once. Jones said doctors told him, “It’s not going away. We can manage it, hopefully control it, but I’ll always have it.

“It is what it is, so we will figure out the best way to deal with it. We don’t want it to run our lives.”

By “we” he means he and his wife, Danielle. I spent 75 minutes interviewing Danielle and another hour with Jeff on Tuesday, and it’s clear they are very much in love.

Danielle has her own career. She is a talented writer and editor for national publications (she’s worked for Politico and now works for Axios). But when she learned Jeff had cancer, she began reading everything she could about the disease.

Her full-time job became taking care of her husband.

“She’s the expert on this,” Jones said. “She talks to my doctors. I do what she tells me to do when it comes to this.”

When doctors asked Jones recently if he wanted to handle the cancer less aggressively to avoid side effects, he didn’t get the chance to speak.

“We want to be as aggressive as possible,” she said.

Jones had his prostate removed in 2015. What Jones didn’t tell us at the time was that doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital discovered cancer had spread to nearby tissue.

Like I said, he wasn’t obligated to tell us anything.

They removed everything they saw that was cancerous. After a short recovery time, Jones went to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for eight weeks of daily radiation. It was hoped the radiation would zap any remaining cancer.

Curiously, his radiation oncologist was Dr. Mark Shaves, who two years later would oversee my radiation treatments.

All was well until June 2017, when doctors noted that tests indicated the cancer was growing again. That was a shock, because prostate cancer rarely reoccurs that quickly.

They monitored the cancer for a year, but then in July, he began receiving injections to stall its progression.

Jones immediately told Danielle after learning of his diagnosis after she returned from a business trip to Washington, D.C. (on his birthday). But he delayed telling his children until his daughters, who were pregnant, gave birth. He told his kids just before Christmas.

His mother was visiting him a few months later in Norfolk when she revealed she had breast cancer and needed surgery. That’s when Jones then told her he also had cancer, then called the rest of his family.

He told athletic director Dr. Wood Selig before last season, then kept things to himself until this week.

“Jeff is a tough, very strongminded man,” said longtime friend and director of basketball operations Dennis Wolff. “He has a real ability to compartmentalize things. He would not allow this to affect anything that has to do with his basketball team.”

But occasionally emotions get the best of Jones.

He teared up twice during our interview, and neither time did he get emotional about himself. He teared up when talking about his wife and when I asked him how his Mom is doing.

“She’s doing chemo and lost her hair,” he said, then looked down with moist eyes.

“It’s no fun.”

Within minutes, we were talking about basketball and his face lit up. Basketball is his life, his reason to exist.

Danielle, who goes by the nickname, Danee, worries about cancer. He worries about his team making the NCAA tournament.

“What she does for me takes a burden off my shoulders,” he said.

Only a handful of times, he said, has he gotten emotional about his cancer in front of her. Once, when he was hospitalized with very painful side effects from the cancer surgery at Norfolk General, he looked up at her and said, “I don’t want to be sick.”

“Through all of this, she’s been the one who’s been with me every step,” he said. “In some ways, it may be harder on her than it is on me. She reads a lot of literature on prostate cancer. I try to tell her that reading all of that isn’t going to change things. But I think maybe that gives her a feeling of being more in control, even though we aren’t in control.

“Having somebody that’s your best friend, closest confidant, all of those things, who is going through that with you, means so much. When I say Danee has been with me every step, that’s a big deal.”

Jones informed his players of his diagnosis last week and said the players took the news quietly. He made it clear to them that business will go on as usual.

“I told them, ‘I’ve had this for a year now and you haven’t seen any difference in me and you’re not going to see any difference now, either,’ ” he said.

“You’re going to get my very, very best every day. I also joked with them a little, and said this doesn’t mean I’m going to be any nicer. I’m still as competitive as ever.”

Jones said, if anything, he’s working harder now that he did 10 years ago. He’s obsessed with getting the Monarchs into the NCAA tournament.

He said if it ever comes to the point where cancer slows him down, “I’ll make the appropriate choice at that time. I won’t allow anything to interfere with my job as coach.”

Jones debated whether - and when - to make a public announcement. He did it now to get it over before basketball practice starts.

Instead of shaking her fist at the sky and saying, “why us?”, Danielle has turned her efforts toward helping others. That’s happened in part because of their frustrating experience with their health insurance.

Both Jeff and Danielle were surprised when their insurance company declined to pay for something called an Axumin scan. It’s much more precise than PET or CT scans, and also more expensive.

Dr. Mark Fleming urged the Joneses to get the exam, which could help locate the recurrence. But even though he called the insurance company to plead his case while on vacation, Anthem refused to pay.

Fortunately, Jones had the money to pay for the scan out of pocket. He wrote a check for $13,280. The scan detected no metastasis, and that dictated the medical course of action for trying to control the disease.

Danielle has set a goal of raising $25,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge Network, which provides a free place to stay for cancer patients who must travel for treatment. She and her husband had already donated $13,280, the cost of the Axumin scan, to the effort.

“How many people don’t have the $13,000 to drop on one test?” Danielle asked rhetorically. “That’s when the rage got to me.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than learning that people don’t have access to necessary treatments, even when they have insurance, because of the cost. We want to raise money for those who don’t have the financial resources to fight cancer alone.”

Jeff Jones said he realizes that health insurance companies are businesses.

“But you would hope that these nameless, faceless insurance companies who everyone vilifies, that there would be some room in there to have a heart, that it’s not all about making a profit,” he said. “At least you would hope."

The irony of this situation is that the only reason Jones knows he has cancer is because in 2015, he was trying to buy additional life insurance. His life insurance company required that he get an exam. Blood work came back showing slightly elevated levels of Prostate-Specific Antigen, indicating he might have prostate cancer.

Then a biopsy came back and showed he had cancer and needed treatment.

“We want to raise awareness because I am so frustrated that his cancer had already spread by the time he got treatment,” Danielle said.

Asked what her hopes are for her husband, Danielle said, “I really would love to see his team win and go to a postseason tournament. I want to minimize the impact physically the best we can from treatment.

“We want to do everything we can to keep its progression at bay. That’s a fight we will take on aggressively. We don’t want to be distracted from the life we have by this and let it take over, especially our lives with kids and basketball.”

Jones said he’s not looking for sympathy. Asked if he thinks other coaches will use his sickness as a negative recruiting tool, he admitted “the thought crossed my mind. I would hope not, and I would challenge anybody who observes what I do, what we do, to prove that there’s been any drop off.”

Jones got philosophical as the interview drew to a close.

“You’re never going to hear Danielle or me say, ‘oh woe is us,’ ” he said. “I’m truly, truly lucky. I’ve got the test done years ago. Who knows where I would be if I hadn’t been tested? I’m lucky enough to be able to financially pay for the best care possible.

“I’m lucky to be coaching a great bunch of kids at a university that I love very much.

“And I’m lucky to have a wife like Danee. I’m truly very blessed.”

Click here to donate to the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge Network.



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