Asheville Fire Department Divison Chief Joy Ponder, third from left,
stands with her crew, which has been very supportive
as she battled cancer herself.
Asheville Fire Department Divison Chief Joy Ponder will run the challenging Black Mountain Marathon Feb. 24 in honor of, and to raise money for, fellow firefighter Will Wills who has been diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of cancer called Translocational Renal Carcinoma. Chief Ponder herself is a cancer survivor who was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2017. She underwent a double mastectomy, received several months of chemo and recently finished weeks of radiation.
The Black Mountain Marathon has been described as the most challenging race many runners have ever run. Runners climb to the Black Mountain Gap overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here, at an elevation of 5,340 feet, marathoners will turn and retrace their course to the start/finish area in Black Mountain. Racers will be challenged with an extremely demanding course run over rugged mountain terrain under potentially severe weather conditions.
Chief Ponder says the mountain she’ll climb on Feb. 24 can’t compare to the challenges Engineer Will Willis faces daily.
“Finishing a marathon is symbolic of ‘anything is possible,’ and that is what we need to remember about Will. He is one of the best firefighters we have and a wonderful person so we all need to pull together and help him and his family,” said Ponder. “Cancer brought me to my knees with surgeries, chemo and radiation but I’m thankful for my growing strength, this day, and my small steps up this mountain to bring awareness to everyone about Will’s ongoing battle.”
Ponder has run several ultra marathons and many marathons and half marathons and this will be one of the biggest challenges of her life. While she considers herself blessed to beat cancer herself, her body is still recovering from extensive chemo and radiation treatments.
Multiple Asheville firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the last two years, and the entire fire service is starting to realize that this disease is more likely to bring them down than the dangers they’ve gotten used to facing. According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer caused 70 percent of the 2016 line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters and firefighters’ risk of dying of cancer is 14 percent higher than the general U.S. population.