A Woman of Steel: Rowing Crew and Living with a Vengeance

Last January, after several years of treatment for melanoma cancer, Susan Steel, of Glenview, was told by her doctors at the National Cancer Institute that they could no longer help her.  They sent her home with a six month prognosis.

Steel’s response? She learned to row crew.  Ten months later she raced – hard – with her team, The Women Of Steel, in their first competition, the Head Of The Skokie, against a New Trier High School girls team.

Her team may have taken their name from Steel.  But her name is a perfect reflection of the woman – Spirit of Steel, Resolve of Steel, Nerves of Steel, Body of Steel.  Susan Steel lives with great meaning and determination.


At a corner table in Northfield’s The Three Tarts Cafe, Steel recently shared her story.  Her vital demeanor – a full head of curly hair, healthy figure, flashing eyes and dangling bead and metal earrings – presented a stark contrast to every image normally associated with Stage 4 cancer.  She frequently interupts the conversation to greet a patron with a smile and a reminder, “Don’t forget that you owe me a check for Youth Services fundraiser!


In March 2005, Steel, was married with two children, then 11 & 13 years old, and working as a partner in Tobi International, a thriving real estate investment business.  She was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma and given a dire prognosis.  Steel launched into network and learn mode, quickly earning a place in an experimental immunotherapy program at The National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Baltimore.

“I qualified because of my strength. I’ve been an athlete all my life, so I was strong enough physically.  Because I’m a business woman and an entrepreneur, they found me strong enough mentally too.”

Every three weeks, for a year, Steel left home at 4:30 a.m., flew to Baltimore for her appointment and vaccination, and returned in time to drive carpool.  In June 2006, she completed this clinical trial.

Unfortunately though, by May 2007, a new tumor appeared in her lymphatic system requiring surgery. Three months later hundreds of tumors were found in her liver and spleen.

“You know that you are in trouble when your surgeon is in tears,” Steel explains.

She knew that her next clinical trials at NCI, interluken therapy, antigen therapy  and cell transfer, would be trips to Hell and back. “That’s when I launched into Maternal Managerial Mode.” Steel continues, “I had to swallow my pride and ask for help.  Lots of help.”


Steel turned to a group of women – her Buddha Mothers – to keep her family running with dinners, carpools, whatever was needed, and give her support, in and out of the Baltimore hospital.  Four hard fought months later, Steel almost made it into that fortunate group. The tumors had shrunk.  But not enough, and not for long. That’s when NCI “released” her.

Steel wasn’t just worried about herself though. She knew that her friends were ravaged too. “My support system was as depleted as I was.  They were exhausted.”  Steel wanted to make sure that they took care of themselves, even as she tried to figure out how to live, be with her kids and deal with chemotherapy that only promised to slow the progress toward an inevitable end, not cure her.

She asked her neighbor, Olympic silver medalist rower Cindy Rusher, for help. “I need these women to learn something new, to engage in something physical.  Will you please teach them to row?”

Rusher, already overscheduled as a New Trier High School girls rowing coach and mother of three grade school children, couldn’t say no.  She started teaching six Buddha Mothers to erg – work-out on rowing machines – last February.

Steel didn’t join at first, because she was still too weak.  But her attitude flipped when a Tibetan Medical Monk asked her, “Have you decided to live?”

“That meant, had I decided to be here now.  Not fight, but not give up.” Steel explains,  “I decided to live with a vengence.”

Steele joined her friends on the ergs.  In the spring, they opened their group up to others through the New Trier extension (adult ed classes) and moved outdoors and into boats.

As Steel got stronger, she lived with a vengence elsewhere in life too.  “I call it leveraging cancer,” Steel grins.

She has traveled with every family member to help them pursue a dream, worked her address book to make sure that Evanston Hospital – now called North Shore University Hospital – has a new pool of blood platelet donors, spoken publicly with Rotaries and School PTAs, and run fundraisers for three organizations.

“I now spend less time working to make money, and more time working to raise money,” Steele pronounces.  “Most of what I raise has an educational component too.  I want to make sure that my daughter and son knows how to make a difference in the world.”

“I can’t do bake sales. So we built a little enterprise that raised $7000 for the eighth grade community service project and called it ‘Smart Bulbs For Bright Girls.'”

The funds went to The Daughters of Ayacucho Education Fund (www.brightgirls.org)

On Saturday, October 4th, Steele actually rowed in two consecutive races against the high school team.  I had the good fortune to row immediately behind her during the second race.

I have to confess that 1/2 way through the North Branch of the Chicago River course, I wanted to quit. It hurt to breath, stroke, keep my legs pumping.  But in front of me Susan Steele moved with strong fluidity and inspired me to push on.  I suspect that she inspires others to push on in whatever their activity these days too.

When asked during our interview one month later about her future plans, she pauses only a moment. “What am I going to do next? Besides indoor workouts?” She continues, “Live the day.  I’m at peace with my future.  I want to use the time that I have left to best prepare my kids for a compassionate life.  And raise over $100,000 for the Youth Services of Glenview & Northbrook Telethon on Nov. 7 & 8.”

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