The first time Susan Ross was diagnosed with cancer, she was a 20-year-old college student studying art and interior design at Appalachian State University. It was stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and in order to have a fighting chance she left school and underwent an experimental form of chemotherapy.
The treatment worked, but not without a price. She became so ill during chemo that a year later, when the cancer returned, she would agree only to radiation treatment. The radiation proved effective as well, but became the root cause of two more bouts of the disease in the forms of melanoma and breast cancer.
Ross, a four-time cancer survivor, died this month. At 56, she had endured enough radiation and chemotherapy to weaken the strongest heart. In the end she died from complications of heart failure.
Friends and family marveled at the bravery with which she faced cancer, over and over again. They wonder how someone so tough could be so sweet.
Ross was born into a military family, and they settled in Raleigh when she was an early teen. When her cancer treatments forced her to drop out of college, her father opened Cable’s Frame House in Raleigh, a frame shop, so she could have gainful employment.
She also worked in restaurants, and it was while she was making grinders at the now-defunct Corkscrew in Raleigh that she met her husband, Willard.
Though he didn’t know it at first, she had just finished her second fight against cancer. On their first date she wore a white blouse that buttoned all the way up her neck to hide the shingles that had broken out on her skin, a result of her weakened immune system.
Ross was not eager to share her cancer history with suitors at first – those before Willard Ross had not handled it very well. To him it made no difference.
“I haven’t had very many moments of clarity, just complete clarity in my life, but one of them was when I first went out with her. I knew I was going to marry her,” Willard Ross said. “I certainly recognized there was a good chance she wouldn’t live as long a life as lots of people.”
The Rosses were told that it was unlikely they could have children. When the couple welcomed daughter Hannah in 1988, it was yet another miracle.
Her family said not a day went by when they did not witness a loving act on her part, be it complimenting a stranger in an elevator or nursing animals back to health through one of the many charitable organizations with which she volunteered.
In her eyes, even squirrels deserved a fighting chance, and she volunteered to foster injured or abandoned wild animals for a group called Wildlife Welfare.
“She ... just had really deep empathy for anyone. She reached out to anyone she thought was in pain. Even strangers. She had this intuitive sense for people who were suffering,” said her daughter, Hannah Ross.
When her daughter was older, Ross taught preschool for a number of years at North Raleigh United Methodist Church. She stopped when her parents became ill, dedicating much of her time to their care during the last years of their lives.
Throughout her battles with cancer, Ross maintained a deep spiritual faith. She volunteered for years with young children at North Raleigh Community Church.
“She did have this tremendous resilience. She did have this tremendous grit and toughness,” yet she was so sweet and so tender, said lead minister Doug Hammack. “To see those two things side by side is kind of uncommon.”
Though she did not formally talk much about the impact cancer had on her way of life, it was clear she savored every moment.
Even after being diagnosed with melanoma in 1986 and breast cancer in 1994, she maintained a positive outlook with each new challenge.
“She just focused on taking care and loving everybody else, and just enjoyed everything really fully. She loved good food, she loved talking about animals, she loved when we took trips ... There weren’t too many people I’ve ever met that enjoyed things at the level she did. The good things,” her husband said.