Today's guest blogger is wonderful Norrell who is a 34 year-old professional musical theatre actress currently living in Chicago, Illinois in the United States with her fiancé Joe and their cat, Chairman Meow. [Is this not the best cat name ever?!]
Norrell says that her biggest passions are singing, meditation, dancing, and snacking on hearts of palm.
Norrell was diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in 2016 at the age of 30 and she is now a passionate advocate for early detection -as she says, #dontwaitinvestigate.
You can find Norrell on Instagram @norelimoo.
Here's Norrell's story:
"Whoa. It's four years this November since my diagnosis... isn't it funny how much we hang on to numbers? These milestone markers. A pause and a breath in remembrance. I was 30 when I learned I had invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. Stage 1. For me, this was both frightening and yet, powerful news. Let me explain.
I have a cousin who had Stage 3 breast cancer and she was diagnosed at the young age of 28. It scared the SHIT out of me, honestly; me being 23 years old at the time. She came out on the other side! I admired her power and motivated spirit to fight what too many women must fight in this world. My main take away? CHECK. YOUR. SELF. Fast-forward seven years later to 2016 and something just... isn't right. There's no pain, but there's definitely a lump. Hmmmmmm.
I am a fairly optimistic and balanced person, or at least I like to believe I am; to constantly keep going with whatever the flow may throw. I am a Pisces, after all. I didn't want to make a big deal out of this if there wasn't any need, so I just “kept an eye on it” for two months before I even mentioned it to my fiancé, Joe.
Sooo this lump, huh? Still here? Cool cool cool. Mind you, I was an uninsured actor/musical theatre performer (like so many in my field) and had many gigs that year. I was also working two restaurant jobs, performing in a musical, and singing in a couple of bands. I've always had the tendency to run myself until empty. I also had my very first car accident that year... something was UP and I could FEEL it.
That August, we lost our dear neighbor to gallbladder cancer. 42 years old . He left behind his two little girls and loving wife. It made me ponder my own situation. I had no healthcare and the costs were already starting to pile up in my head if, in fact, the unknown was to be confirmed. The not knowing was eating me alive. “Knowledge is POWER”, I thought. With more knowledge, I get to keep the control and do what is absolutely necessary for me to stay alive.
Little by little I went through the routine tests (breast exam, mammogram, and biopsy) to learn of my diagnosis in November of 2016. *Deep inhale, deep exhale.* What a year! But, let me tell you about my ride-or-die partner, Joe. He made phone calls for four days to get me insured by January 2017. He set appointment dates for me when I just didn't have the energy to makes those calls myself. He took point. Something he has always done, but this level of love was something I never could dream I would find in a partner. He's a spectacular human and loves me to no end. Talk about lucky.
I was overwhelmed by the amount of support, both emotional and monetary, that poured out from family and friends in my home state of Pennsylvania as well as my theatre fam in Denver, CO. A GoFundMe was started by my now sister-in-law and The Denver Actors Fund had raised over $4,000 to help with medical bills. Having so many people in my corner made my fight less scary.
Once 2017 hit, it was ON and I was in attack mode. The ninth of January, I went in for my first ever MRI. When the test results came back they had determined that another lump had been growing. I now have two tumors growing inside of me. I was shocked, but not shaken. We still had work to do and I had a laser focus on the situation.
Genetic testing followed and we learned even more... my cancer was not hereditary. A “gene of insignificant variance” my doctors called it. The doctors recommended a good-old-fashioned lumpectomy: remove the tumors, salvage the nipple, deal with a deformed “breasticle”. I was not convinced... I needed to do more research and I needed to talk to more women.
That was the key. I talked to mothers, daughters, friends, breast cancer survivors and I asked “What would you do in my position? What do you wish you had done differently?”.
I remember speaking with an Aunt about my grandmother's breast cancer journey. She got her diagnosis towards the end of her life and opted for the lumpectomy, but the cancer returned. I didn't want to hear the word cancer again. I wanted to be FINISHED with this life-altering event. I started to pivot my decision towards a bilateral mastectomy. My man put it very simply. “Your breasts are trying to kill you.” He was absolutely right.
We continued our discussions with my doctors and one month later from the date of my MRI, I went in for my surgery to remove everything; nipple and all with reconstruction surgery on the horizon. Pathology reports came back and we learned that a THIRD mass was beginning to grow. Boy, did I feel good about my decision to cut it all out. Something we were not ready to hear from my oncologist was radiation and chemotherapy. I was pissed.
I didn't understand how I could only be Stage 1, had the mastectomy, and still have to go through nearly 14 rounds of chemo treatment. After more tests were completed on my tumors and finding the most amazing oncology team at Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, we were told I would only have to do 4 rounds of chemo and no radiation. What a relief!
My body handled chemotherapy well with little side effects. Queasy at times, hot flashes, and the loss of my upper singing register for a spell. I had been previously cast in another musical and went into rehearsal three weeks after my initial surgery. I needed theatre to get me through this real-life drama I was living and I was so grateful for that opportunity.
And of course, the hair loss. Honestly, I felt like a badass for the majority of the time. I learned how to wrap luxurious headscarves around my perfectly round dome or just rock the bald. There were stares and it got me down at times, but I kept smiling and shining my light! Once chemo was complete, I got a new pair of boobs! Chemotherapy had been the only thing on my brain that I had almost forgotten about my implant surgery. I had been at this for 6 months and I was exhausted by July. That recovery was definitely the hardest thing of all. Life after cancer now consists of a ten-year regimen of Tamoxifen, routine check-ups, and checking for lumps STILL.
I did something just for me a couple years post-op, too, that is my most spiritual life event to date. Back when I decided to remove my nipple the thought of a tattoo came to mind. I didn't want a nipple tattoo, though. I wanted something fun; just plain badass. Scars are beautiful and I was ok with mine... I just needed a different way to honor what I had gone through. I searched the web for mastectomy tattoos. I wanted to do something either simple and elegant or humorous. The idea I was able to brew up with my close friend and tattoo artist, George Munoz, was both.
The idea that made me smile and laugh the most was when I recalled the first Austin Powers movie. I always enjoyed the scene where the fembots came out to the tune of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”.. all blonde. All in silver lame. No one could resist their charm! And then all of sudden, a gun barrel shoots out from the bra and starts firing at their target. BAD. ASS. My tat is a combo of the gun barrels (smoke still rising from one), peonies, and a mandala formed by intricate dot work.
The reason this day was so spectacular is that I was able to get this 11 hour tattoo in front of thousands at a tattoo convention. Not only was it special for me, but it was also the very first mastectomy tattoo that my good friend, George, was creating. Both of our significant others were there to support and witness. It was magical. I was able to talk with complete strangers and a lot of women about my journey. In turn, they were sharing their story with me. Tattoos mean so much to individuals because more times than not, there's a meaningful story behind it. By sharing my experience in public, I was able to give other breast cancer survivors the confidence and nudge to get their own “badge of honor”.
It's amazing what news like cancer can do to really shift your perspective. Our time on this Earth is never promised. This quite daunting news was in reality a life course in how important slowing down and taking pause to listen to your body can be. It made me reevaluate the ways in which I show up for others, and more importantly, myself, every day. It really was an experience of reacting and turning inward like never before.
I had some rad chemo conversations with myself! I found clarity in my meditation practice. I danced by myself A LOT like I did when I was a kid; making up dances in the dining room. Cancer cracked me open in ways that I can't explain. To anyone who may take a similar journey, my hope for you is that you take this shitty news and turn it into the biggest torch; the brightest light that has always lied within you."
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Norrell. We feel so honoured to share your story.