Local Family Faces Colon Cancer Head-on

Two well-known Wynnewood doctors battle a daunting diagnosis with their kids at their side.

It’s everyone’s nightmare, the stuff that melodramatic movies and weepy novels are made of. But for Wynnewood’s Wendy and Michael Ross, it’s all too real. With two great kids, career success, and the means to enjoy their lives, the couple is now dealing with a deadly interloper.

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One Wednesday in September 2014, Michael had such severe abdominal pain that he ended up in the hospital. Three days later, he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Just like that, the family was turned upside down. 

The Rosses are doctors who have dedicated their lives to helping and healing people. Michael is a sports-medicine physician at the Rothman Institute and the founder and medical director of its Performance Lab, a physician-run exercise-testing center geared toward improving athletic performance. Michael has worked with people in all sports, from world champions to Main Liners running their first 5K. He’s been a weekend warrior for years, having participated in his first triathlon four years ago. 

Wendy is a pediatrician at the Center for Pediatric Development in Bryn Mawr. Her specialty is diagnosing and treating kids with developmental delays and those who are on the autism spectrum. In 2010, she created Autism Inclusion Resources, a nonprofit group that acclimates kids to real-life situations like sporting events, museums and airplanes. She’s enlisted the cooperation of the Phillies, the Eagles and the Flyers, along with airports in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Newark and Washington, D.C. Also on board: the Please Touch Museum, the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences. 

The way Wendy sees it, the needs of those on the autism spectrum should be legally accommodated, just as those of the physically disabled. “If you have someone who has a social disability or developmental delay, you need to provide ‘ramps’ for them,” she says, adding that these can vary from quiet rooms for kids with sensory perception disorders, to helping children acclimate to planes by practicing boarding and sitting. 

These are the sort of people the Rosses are: They believe that people can achieve amazing things. So, when faced with the colon-cancer diagnosis, they attacked it with rock-hard optimism. 

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Michael refused to stop running. Giving that up would feel like letting cancer win the first skirmish in what would be an intensive war—and he didn’t intend to surrender one inch of the battlefield. To illustrate that point, Michael stopped his chemotherapy to run in the annual Rothman Institute 8K that precedes the Philadelphia Marathon. 

“Slowly” is how Michael ran. But he and a group of friends managed to finish the course. They wore bright-blue shirts emblazoned with yellow semicolons, a riff on what remains in his body after surgeons removed part of his colon. 

The shirts were both funny and poig-nant—a great way to punctuate the mission statement of Michael’s life. Local media ran with the story, celebrating his courage and his wife’s, too. Pictures show him smiling and looking strong.

That was in November 2014. Four months later, on a winter-like Friday afternoon in March, Michael’s tone seems less upbeat. Then again, he is getting chemotherapy pumped into his body as he speaks. Every other Friday, he gets 48 hours of chemotherapy. In mid-May, he’ll have another surgery to remove more affected tissue. He’ll also undergo a relatively new treatment: hot chemo. As Michael explains it, the medication will be pumped directly into his abdominal cavity, swirled around the tissue touched by cancer, then pumped out.

TEAM EFFORT: Benjamin, Michael, Wendy and Jacob Ross have been hanging tough since Dad’s cancer diagnosis.

Photo by tessa marie images

Formidable TEAM: Michael and Wendy Ross at their home in Wynnewood//PHOTO BY TESSA MARIE IMAGES

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Nothing about cancer is nice, but that sounds particularly nasty—because it is. Colon cancer is one of those things that people still feel uncomfortable discussing. The same used to be true of breast cancer and is still partly true of the testicular variety. Colon cancer is an oft-ignored disease. It doesn’t have brain cancer’s Lifetime-movie tinge of tragedy or gynecological cancers’ wrath-of-God feel. 

Nor does it have a powerhouse group promoting its awareness, an annual fundraiser, or even a colored ribbon. The only celebrity publicly involved with colon cancer is Katie Couric. It killed her husband, Jay Monahan, and she’s become a spokesperson for early screening of the disease through colonoscopies. 

But no one wants to talk about colonoscopies, let alone get them. That’s the other problem: People don’t normally think about their colons until something is wrong with them. Colons are part of the gastrointestinal system, also known as the GI tract. Information from the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health puts it this way: “So that you can better understand how the different parts of your GI system work, let’s follow a meal—say, a tuna salad sandwich—as it winds its way from your mouth down the 25-foot tunnel commonly known as your digestive tract.” 

Colon cancer and colorectal cancer may be seldom-discussed diseases, but they are quite common. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. In 2011, the ACS reported that, currently, “only about half of people aged 50 or older, for whom screening is recommended, report having received colorectal-cancer testing consistent with current guidelines.”

But Michael Ross wasn’t yet due for a colonoscopy. He’s only 43 years old. He did have symptoms—abdominal pain, mostly—but they were attributed to irritable bowel syndrome and the hernia he had repaired. By the time Michael’s cancer was detected, the tumor had grown large enough to cause an obstruction of the kidney. 

This falls under the category of things that Michael isn’t keen to discuss. If the medical reality of colon cancer is unpleasant, the survival statistics are downright horrifying. But why dwell on them? 

“My kids Googled the survivability, and I wish they hadn’t,” Michael admits. “But I have to say that we are continuing to live our lives. I’m not in pain—I feel reasonably good.”

Michael feels so good that he is working almost full time—and he’s still exercising. He never stopped, even if it was walking instead of running. He’s also swimming and has come to enjoy what he calls the “meditative process” of concentrating on every stroke and every breath. 

That’s not intended to be a Zen-like, carpe-diem statement. Cancer hasn’t made Michael realize some grand truth about life. He believes the same thing that he believed before the disease hit. 

“The best thing that I can do is focus on living the best life that I have,” says Michael. “But, then again, I think everyone who doesn’t have cancer should do that, too.”

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