Marilyn Norris, Casualty Assistance Team chief, would never wish cancer on anyone, much less herself. Yet it happened to her not only once … but three times. Still, she doesn't feel sorry for herself. And she doesn't want anyone else to, either. Instead, Norris is using her experience to encourage others to examine their breasts regularly and to see a doctor immediately if something doesn't seem right.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women with average risk begin yearly mammograms at age 45, although many doctors contend that age 40 is best. Those at high risk, typically due to family history of breast cancer, should talk to their doctor about getting them sooner.
Despite having no family history of breast cancer in her family, Norris was advised to begin screenings for cancer at a younger age due to her mother's bladder and colon cancer diagnoses. In September 1998, at 35 years old, Norris's doctor informed her they had found cancer in her right breast. With two young children at the time, Norris said she didn't have time to grieve or pity herself.
"All I thought about is who would've been able to take care of my son and daughter if something happened to me," she said.
Weighing options, Norris decided to have her breast removed in hopes the cancer would not return in 10 years, as doctors said would likely happen otherwise. For her, a mastectomy was a small price to pay for a clean bill of health. Surely enough, 10 years passed without incident. Then in March 2012, the cancer reared its head again -- this time in her left breast. If there was ever a "convenient time" for it to appear, that was not the time. Norris and several of her friends had been preparing for a Susan G. Komen 3-Day, 60-mile walk to raise funds for breast cancer awareness. She feared that if she went through surgery again, she would not be able to complete the walk.
"I told the doctor at Eisenhower [Army Medical Center], 'Could we wait until after I finish training for the walk and finish the walk, then we handle it?'" she said.
Norris emerged from surgery determined as ever and completed the walk.
Having had both breasts removed, she was certain cancer was a thing of her past. But in early 2016, yet again, Norris felt something was terribly wrong. It almost appeared as if her left breast was growing back. Several doctors' appointments later, a doctor discovered a mass the size of a grapefruit underneath her implant and attached to her ribs. And on Aug. 30, 2016, with her daughter at her side, Norris underwent a 12-hour invasive surgery to remove not only cancer this time, but ribs 3 through 7.
Bearing a reconstructed chest wall partially made partially with bone cement and skin from her back, Norris said the surgery's outcome left her in constant pain, but she refuses to take pain medicine -- or accept pity.
"With my last surgery, which is still my worst … I felt like if I could overcome the pain then I can overcome what's going on," she said. "I want to be able to overcome the pain through continuing to thrive."
If there is one thing Norris does well, it is thrive. As a close friend, Adele Holifield, executive assistant with 7th Signal Command, has witnessed it firsthand. Holifield has known Norris for about 19 years and was her walking partner during the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, 60-mile walk. She describes Norris as "dedicated, caring, organized, mentor, fighter, humble, determined and outspoken" among other adjectives.
"Marilyn is a fighter and never gives up. She doesn't let her circumstances define her," Holifield said. "Even when she's at a low point and you ask how she is, she always replies, 'Great!'"
In addition to beating cancer three times, Norris is the founder and CEO of Girl Warriors Fighting the Battle, an organization that provides programs and services to young girls in underserved communities; a 13-year Army Veteran; served as a volunteer court appointed special advocate for eight years; and a recently published author.
But her greatest accomplishment, she said, has been raising two successful children; both college graduates with prosperous careers who have blessed her with grandchildren.
Looking back on her battle with cancer, she believes her military service played a key part in her overcoming cancer.
In her book, Norris says, "I don't believe I would have gotten through my first cancer diagnosis without my military experience … The time I served on active duty and in the Army Reserves forever shaped the core of who I am. Being a Soldier gave me the strength I needed to win my first fight with cancer."
Now she serves as an advocate for getting others involved in the fight. For Norris, breast cancer awareness is a daily occurrence. And she hopes others will be inspired to make it daily, as well -- first by doing self-examinations regularly.
"If you suspect something could be wrong, get checked immediately," she said. "My body wasn't in pain at the time, but I felt something wasn't right, so I got checked."