NORMAN — Jan Ross summoned all her strength when she addressed the Oklahoma women's basketball team last April.
The assistant coach tried exuding confidence, but that didn't stop most faces from turning to sheer terror when Ross uttered one grim, panic-inducing word.
“People hear ‘cancer,' and get scared,” Ross said.
Particularly the first time to hear a loved one say it. Those in the room who'd dealt with it knew Ross' breast cancer wasn't unbeatable.
“You could tell who in the room had had personal brushes with it ... For all those who had no relationship with it, it was terror. Absolute terror,” said OU coach Sherri Coale, who felt that powerful fear only a few short years ago.
Thursday, when Oklahoma hosts North Texas inside Lloyd Noble Center, a cancer-free Ross will coach hand in hand with Coale, her longtime best friend who was better able to help Ross because of her mother's successful cancer battle.
Ross and Coale have been close for nearly 30 years. They played college basketball together at Oklahoma Christian, and Ross has worked on Coale's staff since she became OU's coach in 1996.
One day last April, Ross was on the phone with her doctor, learning her diagnosis, when she walked into Coale's office and closed the door.
Fortunately, doctors caught her breast cancer in an early stage; that didn't make it any easier or less scary for Ross' loved ones.
What helped Coale, though, was that she'd been through it before. Her mother, Beverly Stash, is nearly three years removed from beating lymphoma.
“When my mother got the diagnosis ... terror; but it was different when Jan got the diagnosis,” Coale said. “It had a name; it had a face. I knew what we were fighting.”
Ross had surgery May 8, and went through chemotherapy treatments through July.
“I knew probably how she was going to feel; I helped my mom shave her head, helped ... I'm sorry,” Coale said, pausing to fight back tears.
“I helped Jan shave her head. ... From the most tangible little seemingly unimportant detail, to the really, really big ones, it was a road I had been down.”
Ross stayed home and rested through July, a heavy recruiting month with lots of travel; other than that, she continued coming to work over the course of her battle.
Junior guard Morgan Hook said the team watched in awe, inspired by Ross' determination.
“I remember we'd feel her, and she'd feel so hot,” Hook said. “She would come in, no matter how bad she was feeling, and say she felt great.”
Ross, 48, says she feels great today, too, and she looks great. Her hair is growing back. She's started working out again.
She also feels blessed to have fully returned to a job she loves, where she gets to coach the players she loves.
“Hopefully they learned that, nowadays, cancer doesn't mean you're dying,” Ross said. “There's so many treatments, so many good doctors, so much they can do.”
On May 12, four days after her surgery, Ross was scheduled to toss the first pitch at OU's baseball game.
No one was sure if she'd actually be able to do it, but Ross insisted.
Even then, few expected the down-the-middle strike Ross hurled.
“That just sums it up,” Coale said. “That's the way she goes about her business and lives her life. ‘Just doing what I'm supposed to do.'
“But the rest of the world takes notice, and it's pretty extraordinary.”
NO. 12 OKLAHOMA VS. NORTH TEXAS
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, Dish 416, DirecTV 679, U-verse 754)
Radio: KOKC-AM 1520, KREF-AM 1400