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Showing Up for Life with Cancer

Meet the indomitable honoree of the 2024 Ben Walls Memorial Jam, Sheila Ross and learn how you can help Sheila, the University Hospital stroke unit director, battle cancer. Pictured is the 2024 Ben Walls Memorial Jam honoree Sheila Ross and husband Jay Ross (Image credit: Ben Walls Memorial Jam Facebook page shared for publication by Sheila Ross)

We go through life with assumptions based on experience—we trust we’ll wake up every day, brush our teeth, get ready, and go about our day without much fanfare. Those of us who are healthy hold the belief that we will remain healthy, and then, without preamble or much indication—we find a lump. We start to experience back pain. We run fever. We get chills. Our bodies signal something is wrong, and then we find out—it’s cancer.

Though a cancer diagnosis is always terrifying, even in the best and most ideal circumstances, even when the cancer can be safely removed without threat of recurrence, there is a distinct division in one’s life between never having had a cancer diagnosis and having the looming threat of cancer forever hang overhead.

This is what the 2024 Ben Walls Memorial Jam honoree, Sheila Ross, the director of University Hospital’s stroke unit no doubt experienced in 2022 when she received the news that she had metastatic triple negative breast cancer, one of the most harrowing breast cancer diagnoses. When I spoke to Sheila, despite her current prognostic outlook, she was bubbly, chatty, and friendly. We talked about the popular misconception, that breast cancer is largely treatable and curable and that almost everyone survives. It is a belief that is sadly very untrue. Though there have been advents in breast cancer research that have indeed saved lives that would otherwise have been lost, there is much work to do, something Sheila, a wife and mother and grandmother, is well aware of.

Presently, Sheila explained, she has undergone multiple complex and invasive treatments, including chemotherapies, immunotherapies, radiation, and a radical mastectomy. In her persistent battle, she and her husband Jay Ross have invested tens of thousands of dollars on travel to MD Anderson for tests, scans, targeted therapies, and to discuss variables and findings affecting her care. In one interview on Fox10 News, Sheila reveals that one seven-week trip to MD Anderson in Houston, Texas cost $15,000 between the therapy and the apartment they had to rent while away from family. Other trips are in the ballpark of upwards of $5,000 depending on the duration of the stay and the reason for the visit.

Throughout her battle, in March 2023, Sheila came dangerously close to ending her journey in this world, but she pulled through. Though the medications she’s on have made her sick, stolen her hair, exhausted her, harmed her organs, and robbed her of her ability to function at times, she has persisted in working and in showing up for life with a loving intention to help others. In this regard, Sheila is the embodiment of grace and resilience.

She says, “I’m lucky I never got sick and missed work in the hospital,” noting that, “I’m grateful. Cancer changes you perception on day-to-day living. I’m thankful for everyday—it’s a gift. Twenty years ago, I’d be dead already.”

The gravity of her truth sits like a stone in my palm and is a reality I hold deep in my heart. How true I know this to be…and how tragic that would be. I think solemnly of the others who were fated to lose their wars against cancer because the science to save their lives was simply not yet accessible. 

Sheila is both an optimist and a realist, and she eschews remarking on her strength and instead praises those who have held her up throughout her battle.

“My husband, Jay Ross, is the most wonderful human in the world, my best friend.”

Between the two of them, they have four living children. Tragically, one of Sheila’s children passed away two days before his 28th birthday. Suffice to say, Sheila indeed understands the precious gift a life is, as she endeavors to live hers to the absolute fullest each day fully aware that the treatment protocol now is to keep the cancer at bay, following its latest aggressive return where it implanted in her mediastinum and in both lungs. We “don’t know how much longer”, Sheila admitted.

And though anyone could be selfish in such a regard, her hope for this year’s annual Ben Walls Memorial Jam is that it garners so much attention and raises so much in sponsorship, support, and funds that the foundation can honor two recipients next year. Selfless and gracious as always, Sheila wants to give back even as she and her family are in need of us, the village who loves and supports her.

Of course, giving and generosity are common themes witnessed throughout the infrastructure of the Ben Walls Memorial Jam. Noretta Walls, the organization’s matriarch, widow to the eponymous first recipient, Ben Walls, tells me that the people who contribute the prizes for the raffle are often bereaved family of past recipients. One family who lost a daughter in her 40s to colon cancer, the same cancer that stole Ben Walls’ life a tragic two days before the inaugural fundraiser, three days before what would’ve been his 50th birthday, donates a massive basket of boozy summer fun for the silent auction.

Sheila’s husband, Ben Walls, passed away from cancer two days before the first event at The Garage, a mere three days before he made it to his 50s. Ben was a fun and well-liked man. His lovely widow recounts that he always hung out at The Garage, and so when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and his friends wanted to raise funds to support him, they chose The Garage, and it’s been the increasingly popular event’s home ever since. Free crawfish, brews, bands, and more are characteristic of The Ben Walls Memorial Jam, though, to be sure, the full force of love and gratitude and authentic connections are the parts your truly savor.

In addition to the silent auction, the event will feature a live auction, gift cards for exciting experiences, and other really desirable surprises and bespoke scores. For example, the increasingly popular raffle bowls are back. The winner of each raffle bowl gets to keep the bowl, which is made by artists from Murphy High School. Other fun and exciting items attendees can win at the Ben Walls Memorial Jam this year include tooth whitening kits, which Noretta says are “very popular for some reason”, artwork by local legends such as Devlin Wilson, Brad Fuller, Fred Baldwin, and others. There are also a few surprise, not-to-be-missed big items hinted at that will be up for live auction. Interestingly, one of the donors is related to a past honoree of the Ben Walls Memorial Jam. I find this to be a common thread among those who participate.

To be sure, it’s why I’m here. Before my late husband ever became ill through his work with the Air Force, I wrote profiles for MCI Magazine, not knowing that the place would one day symbolize hope and heartache for me. I would imagine the suffering of cancer patients, survivors, and their families, and ache with sadness for what they must be experiencing, but until I watched the man I committed my life to take his last breath nearly five years ago, I had no idea, none, whatsoever, the magnitude of suffering those with cancer endure. I cannot get a flu without thinking of how sick my husband was and for how long and for all of the deep and sincere gratitude he expressed at the lessons he learned. If you want to see the grace of God, turn to the suffering.

As one deeply touched by grief and cancer and in my interactions with those like Sheila and Noretta, I find that through such suffering, we witness the truth of all there is—we are all connected. We are all in this together. And, as the late spiritualist Ram Dass says, we are all walking each other home. And so, despite our shared pain and grief and suffering cruelly inflicted by cancer, we show up and give the best ways we can because we have walked in their shoes. We have held their hands. We have cried with them and for them, and that suffering would not have been endurable had the ones who loved and lost and suffered before not stepped in front of us and held space for us as they embraced us in our sorrow. They are, and so we must become, a light that blooms in an encompassing darkness.

Together, we are called to illuminate the path for the Sheila Rosses of the world, and this year, I hope you join me in showing up for Sheila, in making a donation, in giving of your precious light in whatever way you can to support this wonderful woman and this incredible cause. Your presence will be an honor to the lives lost too soon, to the lives curtailed and upended by a diagnosis, by families who are robbed of precious moments and memories, of children and grandchildren who never know a certain person’s loving embrace, and to all of those who do not yet know that they, too, will be robbed by cancer. We come together in love because we are them, and they are us. We do this because while we may be lucky enough to not understand, we have the heart space to imagine, and in that regard, when are called to show up, we come.

If you’d like to contact the organization to make a donation, call 251-458-6615 or click this link to the Ben Walls Memorial Jam (501(c)(3)) contact page on their website to send a message. Make sure to follow the Ben Walls Memorial Jam Inc. on Facebook.

The Ben Walls Memorial Jam is $10 to get in. You must be 21 and up. The doors open at 12. The official end of the event is noon, but it’s The Garage, soooo…. There will be live music (bands and artists listed below) and free crawfish served until gone.
This is going to be fantastic. These are excellent bands and will be keep The Garage jammin’ while we enjoy free crawfish (served until gone) and celebrate life with Sheila and other survivors and families and friends affected by cancer. There’s going to be SO much love at this event you guys.

Images with event details are provided from the Ben Walls Memorial Jam Facebook page.

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