Rashida Ross left Florida A&M and had no idea she wasn’t going to return.
Ross was a two-sport athlete from Houston, Texas, who came to FAMU to obtain a degree in biology. Her decision to attend FAMU was finalized after she made the 2010-2011 FAMU cheerleading squad.
However, cheering wasn’t enough to satisfy her athletic appetite. Even with a full-time load, Ross decided to walk onto the women’s track and field team for pole vault.
“Freshman year was one that I will never forget,” Ross said.
But as exciting as the highs were, the lows hit in the pit of her stomach. After completing her second semester in April 2011, Ross was diagnosed with stage 5 lymphoma, a type of cancer. Her first thought was, “Oh no, I have to tell my mom and she’s so emotional.”
Ross said she was in good shape and felt fine. But she wondered, “How is this possible?”
The road to discovery was far from short and sweet. In late January, Ross began to notice her symptoms.
Netali Chapple, a third-year business administration student and one of Ross’s roommates, said everyone just thought she had a cold.
As time passed, even simple tasks such as walking up the hill to class or up the stairs in B.L. Perry became a challenge, Ross said. Then she started to experience a lot of pain in her shoulder, making it unbearable to sleep on her left side.
Before the doctors said it was cancer, the FAMU Health Clinic diagnosed Ross and started to treat her for a mild case of pneumonia. Then they sent her to get a CAT scan, thinking that it must be something else.
Wendy Deshommes was one of two people in the house with Ross who had a car, so she took Ross to her doctor’s appointments. She said Ross is very strong. On the day Ross went to find out the results of her CAT scan, Deshommes had to attend class. Ross went to the clinic alone, to hear the news of her diagnosis.
Neither of them could have predicted the outcome of that visit. Deshommes said she would never forget when Ross entered the car and told her what the doctors said.
Deshommes recalls Ross saying “I have cancer.” Deshommes admires Ross’ inner strength.
By the time the cancer was diagnosed, it was at its worst stage. Without the timely diagnoses, the doctors said it would have traveled to her heart and eventually led to her death. As she progressed with her treatment, she felt worse than ever before.
“The treatment made me sicker than I ever was before,” Ross said. “My fingernails turned black, my hair fell out and some days I was too sick to even get out of the bed.”
Brandi Tatum, Ross’ cheerleading coach, said Ross was very passionate and got along with everyone and never complained.
“If I had more cheerleaders like her, practice would run a lot smoother,” Tatum said. “I thought she was an outstanding person, and the fact that she was a dual student-athlete was nothing short of amazing.”
Justin Doby, a graduating mathematics student, said Ross is one of the most determined and fun loving people he has met through cheerleading.
“We can learn a lot from her strength,” he said.
Chapple said Ross was the best roommate.
“I was never the neatest person,” Chapple said, “but sometimes after rushing out for class, I would come home and find the room clean and my bed made up.”
Ross was not one to let things keep her down when she reached the lowest point of her sickness, she reached her highest jump mark at a track meet in Troy, Ala., coming in at over 9 feet.
Ross sat out for one semester and after six grueling months of treatment, she is cancer-free.
“Every day I wake up, I have a reason to smile,” Ross said.
She has re-enrolled in school at Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU in Texas, and joined the Panthers’ cheerleading squad. Ross said she’ll always miss the hill, the life and the friends she made on campus her freshman year.
“Everyone has a story about how FAMU changed life,” Ross said. “Mine is the friends I met there that helped support me from 600 miles away while I went through the most challenging experience of my life. I am so blessed.”