In September, sports medicine physician Michael Ross received a surprising diagnosis: Stage 4 colon cancer.
This 43-year-old father of two is one of about 130,000 people diagnosed with colon cancer each year in the U.S. But Ross isn't taking the diagnosis – or treatment – lying down. Instead, this triathlete has kept running, albeit a little bit slower, while receiving chemotherapy.
Last weekend, Ross and about a dozen friends ran in the Rothman 8k, completing the nearly five-mile course up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in around 42 minutes. "That's twice as slow as the winners," said Ross.
The group wore bright blue shirts emblazoned with a big semi-colon, a riff on Ross' besieged body part. The group wasn't raising money. They were there to raise spirits.
"The first time I met with one oncologist, I was told that this is the survivability - 50 percent of people make it this far. And I didn't want to hear that," said Ross, whose work helps athletes give their very best performances. So, while Ross had surgery to remove a part of his colon – called the Sigmoid colon or pelvic colon – and hooks his body up to a pump that pushes chemotherapy every two weeks, he said the diagnosis "is not going to change what we're going to do."
"After being diagnosed, people would say things like "well before Michael got sick." And the truth is, I don't feel terribly sick," said Ross. The surgery and slower pace of recovery and chemotherapy meant Ross could spend more time with his two sons, Ben, 11, and Jacob, 9.
Michael's wife, Wendy Ross, said she was initially hesitant when Michael said he wanted to keep running. "When he said he wanted to still do it even though he was going to be having chemo, I confess I did try to dissuade him." But when it became clear that it was important to him, "I decided just to support the effort," said Wendy.
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Michael Ross likely has more surgery in his future to remove cancer cells from his abdomen - and after that, another round of chemotherapy. In the meantime, race promoters are already sending out invites to next year's races. But, "It's kind of hard to look ahead right now," said Ross. "It will be a victory if I get to compete in a triathlon again."
The odds aren't good. But, Ross isn't one to dwell on them.
"Odds are whatever they are for you. If the survivability from something is 75 percent, it doesn't mean 75 percent of you is going to survive. You're either going to be 100 percent or 0 percent," said Ross. In the meantime, "you've got to live your life."
And to him, that means running and picking up new hobbies, like learning the ukulele. It also means living like you're going to beat the odds.
"I guess when you think about our situation, you know there are people who are outliers who survive really difficult situations," said Wendy. "If anybody could do it, I would bet on Michael."