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Honouring his memory by conquering kidney cancer

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Thrill of the Grill organizer Susan Puff helps raise nearly $50,000 for Sunnybrook research

Tim Fraser

Thrill of the Grill organizer Susan Puff helps raise nearly $50,000 for Sunnybrook research.

Susan Puff has funnelled several parts of herself – her formidable energy, her event-planning expertise and her desire to honour the memory of her beloved husband – toward a Sunnybrook event that benefits other people.

Susan is the executive director of the Danforth Business Improvement Area (BIA) (in Toronto's Riverdale community), which hosts the Thrill of the Grill rib competition. The annual event has raised nearly $50,000 for the Odette Cancer Centre's research into kidney cancer since 2012 when Ross, an acclaimed TV editor, lost his battle with the disease.

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Susan admits that helping her husband to fight this disease was hard: "I was scared. I didn't want him to die. With every drug we tried, I just wanted more time. I was greedy."

Ross's cancer was caught at an advanced stage, which is common since the disease may not reveal symptoms early. However, through the work of Dr. Georg Bjarnason, an Odette Cancer Centre medical oncologist and a world leader in evaluating new therapies for advanced kidney cancer, Ross was able to continue the job he loved as senior editor of Shaw Media's specialty channels. He endured surgeries and drug therapies that extended his life four years after his diagnosis, double the original expectation.

Ross passed away on January 15, 2012, at age 46. Susan credits her husband's courage, sense of humour, the love and support of good friends and Ross's deep bond with Dr. Bjarnason and the
Sunnybrook team for giving him the will to push the envelope of life. "Ross wanted to continue working and to maintain a good quality of life as long as possible. So, when it came to ourselves and our team at Sunnybrook, everything revolved around this wish," says Susan.

Work preoccupied Susan, too. Before Ross came into her life and after university, Susan worked in public relations, then became head of events for the City of
Toronto's 1996 summer Olympics bid. She then moved into fundraising events and media relations at the foundation for the Holland Orthopaedic & Arthritic Hospital (now part of Sunnybrook).

One day while unwinding with co-workers at a downtown pub, Susan met Ross, who was then a CBC employee. They played pool and threw darts, and Ross soon asked her out. "At that point, I had gone out on some disastrous dates with other guys and I thought, 'Geez, here's another crazy guy who drives a motorcycle and keeps telling the same joke over and over until you finally have to laugh … I don't think so!'" They married in 1995.

Several years later, as Ross's career was flourishing, he went to his family doctor, because he was having difficulty urinating. His doctor referred him to a specialist at Toronto East General Hospital who discovered a large tumour "the size of a small loaf of bread," as Susan describes it, on his kidney. Even worse, the cancer had already spread to his lung.

After surgery to remove his kidney, Ross was referred to a clinical drug trial, led by Dr. Bjarnason at Sunnybrook. The aim of the trial was to slow the growth and reduce the size of the inoperable lung tumour. Dr. Bjarnason later became Ross's full-time specialist, a relationship that blossomed into a great friendship. Dr. Bjarnason's work bought Ross time, but couldn't save him.

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After Ross's passing, Susan began dedicating her time to realizing her late husband's dream of supporting the fight against kidney cancer. She did it by fulfilling another mission: promoting the restaurants and businesses in the dynamic Danforth BIA.

The Danforth BIA launched Thrill of the Grill four years ago to promote the area businesses, but two years ago the annual rib competition was transformed into a fundraiser for the Sunnybrook Foundation.

She explains: "Ross would often say, 'I am so grateful for this team here at the Odette. I wish I would win the lottery and I could give them money to make their life easier and help Dr. Bjarnason with his research.' He'd say to me, 'Maybe one day you could do an event for them.' He died in January 2012, and Thrill of the Grill was coming up in July. The board of directors of the Danforth BIA said they would like to make it in memory of Ross."

"Ross would often say, 'I wish I could win the lottery and give them [Odette Cancer Centre] money to make their life easier."

The fact that Ross used to volunteer for this event, explains Susan, makes Thrill of the Grill as an event even more meaningful, boosting an important philanthropic component, namely "to help raise awareness and a little bit of money for this bizarre cancer that not a lot of people know about, but that a lot of people get." According to the Canadian Cancer Society, kidney cancer is expected to claim 1,750 Canadians in 2013.

Dr. Bjarnason, Food Network           Canada celebrity chef Lynn Crawford, and co-sponsors Pfizer Oncology and Baxter Corporation were among volunteers at the July 2013 Thrill of the Grill, which
attracted about 1,500 people, raising about $22,000.

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Susan calls the nearly $50,000 raised over two years for Odette's kidney cancer work "an amazing start," but adds, "I really want to reach the million dollar mark. It would be like winning the lottery for kidney cancer research and awareness." For more information on the Thrill of the Grill go to

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with Sunnybrook. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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