Everyone has a story to tell. For Marilyn Norris, it’s one a deeply personal one of determination and survival. And she shares it with anyone who will listen in case one day it could save their life – or that of someone they know.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But for Norris, Fort Gordon Casualty Assistance Team chief, Military Personnel Division, not a day goes by that she isn’t cognizant of the disease. Despite having no family history of breast cancer, she received her first cancer diagnosis – in her right breast – at 35 years old. That was in 1998.
While the American Cancer Society recommends most women begin yearly mammograms at 45, Norris’s doctor recommended that she have one earlier due to her mother’s bladder and cancer diagnoses. Had the doctor not caught it in time, there’s no telling where she might be today.
“I was very fortunate,” she said.
Norris followed her doctor’s recommendation for a unilateral mastectomy in hopes the cancer would not return. But to her dismay, it returned about 14 years later – this time in her left breast.
At the time of her diagnosis, Norris and several friends had been preparing for a three-day, 60-mile walk to raise funds for breast cancer awareness. Worried another mastectomy would derail her plans to complete the walk, she asked her doctor at the time, “Could we wait until after I finish training for the walk and finish the walk, then we handle it?”
Instead, she proceeded with the surgery – and wound up completing the walk a short time later.
Thinking she was cleared from cancer after having had both breasts removed, Norris received the shock of a lifetime. In early 2016, she noticed a suspicious growth in an area where her left breast used to be. Soon after, a doctor discovered a mass about the size of a grapefruit underneath her implant attached to her ribs. Norris underwent a 12-hour surgery to remove not only the mass, but part of her ribs. The surgery required that part of her chest wall be made partially with bone cement and skin from her back. The procedure was a success in that it eliminated any concerns over cancer, but Norris lives in constant pain – and memory – of the surgery. Still, she considers herself blessed.
“There were many times I told my doctor that I needed to ‘hit the pause button’ because cancer came at a time when I had other things planned,” Norris recalled. “I knew that I had a life I wanted to live, so cancer had to wait on me. There are still so many things I want to experience, so being a survivor is a blessing.”
Since her third bout with cancer, Norris continues to live and thrive. Along with having served in the Army for 13 years, 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, and she recently published her first book, in which she shares her battle with cancer and those of other female Veterans.
Now she is inviting the Fort Gordon community to join her in raising awareness for the disease, which she believes could have prematurely ended her life had she not taken it seriously.
“Any illness or disease – to many – is not concerning until it hits them or their household,” she said. “But just about every household now … some form of cancer has touched them in some way.”
To help raise awareness, Norris and several of her colleagues will be participating in a meaningful walk every Friday during October.
“Every 13 minutes, a woman dies of breast cancer, so we’re going to walk around the building for 13 minutes each Friday to represent that one woman who did not survive,” Norris explained.
She also has weekly activities planned for the entire community – specifically those who work in Darling Hall – and hopes that everyone who can will participate as a means to raise awareness. She also hopes the activities serve as a reminder to get mammograms.
“Get a buddy system to get checked along with other family and friends,” she said. “Keeping breast cancer in the minds of others helps those recovering to have a wider support system.”
• Monday through Friday: Select a ribbon design to decorate and drop off in Room 155, Darling Hall. All decorated ribbons will be judged and top winners awarded a prize.
• Oct. 12-16: Decorate your office cubicle and/or door to represent Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
• Oct. 23: Go wild and wear all the pink you can find.
• Oct. 28: Show support by wearing a pink ribbon, scarf, socks and/or mask.