A Tribute To Skin Of Steel Founder Susan Steel

Susan Steel, of Glenview, died in January from melanoma. Most people diagnosed with late-stage melanoma, like Steel, live for a few months. Steel lived for more than a decade. That is big news in and of itself, but what is extraordinary and inspiring is the way Steel lived and what she accomplished as she endured brain surgery after brain surgery and drug trial after drug trial.

susan steel skin of steel

Susan Steel in 2014.

Steel very intentionally lived “with vengeance”—as an alternative to just “fighting cancer.” She did so by focusing her attention on helping others—her children, friends, future melanoma patients, the world. Her impact grew with each passing month because of this. The nonprofit she founded with others to raise awareness of, education about and research opportunities for melanoma—Skin Of Steel (SOS) —will live on with vengeance, too.

“Susan founded SOS to provoke revolutionary change in the treatment and prevention of melanoma, and by God that is what we are on the cusp of!” Board Chair Steve Sullivan declares. “She strategically partnered with people all over the globe to change the landscape of melanoma, and attitudes toward melanoma, and there will be no ‘end’ to her story. She may well have the most productive afterlife of anyone the world has ever known… Our team is resolute to open the world’s first ever ‘openly collaborative melanoma tissue bank.’” These audacious, laudable plans helped SOS win a 2014 Make It Better Philanthropy Award.

skin of steel make it better philanthropy award winner

Susan Steel (center) receives a Make It Better Philanthropy Award on behalf of Skin of Steel.

In 2005, Steel was a married international real estate fund executive and former competitive skier with two children, 11 and 13, when she was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma and given that dire prognosis. She launched into seek and destroy mode, finding every possible experimental program that could help her fight against the deadly disease at places like the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore.

By 2008, the first time I wrote about her, Steel had already endured seven brain surgeries and clinical trials. She described a Tibetan Medical Monk asking her a question that transformed her thinking from just “fighting” her cancer battle to “living with a vengeance.” This energized her life and got her focused on helping others. Steel giggled and called her determined actions “leveraging cancer.”

Steel traveled with every family member to help them pursue some dream. She launched a crew program as a way to give back to her cadre of gal pals who swooped in to help her and her family during her treatments. She wanted them to focus on learning a new skill and taking better care of themselves. She surprised herself by joining them, too. According to coach Hope Poor, Steel stated: “Rowing was one of my most defiant acts.” It was also a great success. The program blossomed into today’s formidable New Trier Women’s Masters which competes across the country.

Steel started SOS in Glenview, primarily to educate local youth and others about melanoma prevention. She spoke publicly, including to rotaries and PTAs, ran fundraisers, insured that NorthShore University HealthSystem had a robust pool of blood platelet donors. As years passed and she lived on, Steel sought out fellow melanoma warriors nationally, helped rewrite medical protocol, learned that researchers clamor for more tissue to do their work, and so Steel set her sights even higher.

According to Sullivan, Steel’s life work became “helping science unlock genetic biomarkers that may very well hold hidden clues for cures.” With laser focus, Steel built a coalition and a plan to fund four collaborative tissue banks across the United States, including one in Chicago.

In 2014, Pittsburg’s Woiner Foundation hosted a forum announcing that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will be one of the Skin Of Steel tissue banks. This is the legacy that SOS continues to champion with a vengeance. Success insures that Steel’s legacy will transform life for melanoma patients and their families around the world in perpetuity.

By choosing to live with vengeance and help others, rather than just focusing on the fight she was destined to lose, Steel was able to live a decade longer than anticipated, help her children pursue dreams and grow into lovely adults, found a blossoming athletic program for women, inspire others to live courageously and with vengeance, and eventually likely transform melanoma research and outcomes around the world.

Thank you, Susan Steel. God rest.

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