Family dedicated to the fight against illness

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Michael Ross finishing last year's Rothman 8K a few months after his cancer diagnosis.

Natalie Pompilio is a Philadelphia writer

When doctors diagnosed Michael Ross with stage IV colon cancer last September, he didn't ask them to forecast his future. The 44-year-old triathlete was focused on living, not dying.

So a few months after the disease was identified, Ross ran the Rothman Institute's 8K race as he's done for years. Because the event fell on one of his treatment weekends, his wife disconnected and flushed his chemotherapy line, bought him hand warmers and thermal socks, and sent him on his way. Dozens of friends surrounded him during the length of the run, all of them wearing blue shirts with a large yellow semicolon on the front.

Get it? A semicolon, like what Ross had left after surgery to remove the diseased portion. A semicolon, to represent a pause in life, not an end.

That positive attitude - and a healthy dose of humor - made all the difference, Wendy Ross believes. It's fitting, she said, that her husband is a sports-medicine doctor at Rothman, where he founded and directs the Performance Lab, an exercise center that helps athletes improve their performance.

"At work, he helps people reach their potential and here he was outside of work serving as a positive example for us all," she said. "A lot of people who would have gotten that diagnosis would have given up. He never did."

I met Wendy around this time last year when I wrote about Autism Inclusion Resources, the nonprofit she founded to help children on the spectrum prepare for new experiences that might unsettle them, like being on an airplane or sitting through a sporting event. She was one of CNN's 10 "Heroes" of 2014, an honor awarded to ordinary people doing extraordinary work to help others.

When Wendy and I first talked, Michael was just a few months into his nine-month chemotherapy regimen. She was juggling the stress of his illness with the struggle to find continued funding for her organization and more typical life issues: holding down a job, raising sons Ben and Jacob, maintaining a home. Still, she made it clear that she did not want me to mention any of her personal challenges in that piece. She wanted the focus to be on helping autistic children and their families.

I thought she was extraordinary then. Now I know she's part of an extraordinary family.

Michael is now cancer-free, extraordinary as those diagnosed with his rare form of colon cancer have a survival rate of 6 percent. Ben, 12, will be bar mitzvahed next year and, instead of a big party, he told his parents to donate the money they would have spent on that to an organization that helps families dealing with a cancer diagnosis, "so no one has to have a year like we did."

"You can have a party that's only going to last a few hours or you could change someone's life," Ben told me when he occasionally looked up from his iPad when I visited the family's Wynnewood home.

As part of his bar mitzvah preparation, Ben is selling semicolon T-shirts to raise money for charity (for more details, visit: http://www.mylocker.net/my/shop/semi-colon-team/index.html).

With prior shirt sales, Ben's current hawking, and the unused party money, Wendy expects they'll donate about $10,000.

Michael is also collecting charitable donations as he prepares for the 2015 Rothman Institute 8K, slated for Nov. 21. He'll again be surrounded by a gaggle of supporters, although some of them are worried about maintaining pace with him now that he's not undergoing chemotherapy.

"No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but when you are, hopefully, it doesn't have to be the end of the story," Michael said.

Added Wendy: "It's not really about focusing on the possibility of dying. It's about living as much as you can while you're here."

nataliepompilio@yahoo.com