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Lisa Norsen

HER2+ Breast Cancer

Rarely does a woman say she had an “amazing experience” with breast cancer. Meet Lisa Norsen, Ph.D., R.N., who sees the glass half full and sprinkles her story with humor and wisdom that she learned along the way.

First off, she says, “Get your mammogram!” Hers was routine, she felt no lump and had no symptoms. Since she's older than 60, the recommendation is to get a mammogram every other year. But she thought it was important to go annually and when the radiologists unexpectedly found cancer “it hit me across the head like you wouldn't believe,” Norsen says.

Within a week — it was December of 2016 — she was in treatment. Chemotherapy was given first, followed by surgery in April of 2017, then radiation, then additional medications that targeted the HER2 gene that played a significant role in her disease.

She didn't let cancer stop her from living life, though.

“I had chemo on Christmas Eve, and I come from a family that celebrates holidays in big ways, every year,” says Norsen, the Chief Wellness Officer for the UR Medicine Center for Employee Wellness. “I was nauseated, I had shaved my head. It was hard. It was the first time I had seen a lot of family since my diagnosis and I spent some time crying and scared. But it was a very memorable Christmas in many ways. A lot of important things happened.”

In fact, her advice to others is to keep doing what’s important to you throughout treatment. “For example,” she says, “for years I’ve been picking up my nieces and nephews every Wednesday. We bake cookies, or do other fun things. One’s a senior in high school now, and I was determined to not give up my time with them.”

Along with the old routines, she added a few new ones. She meditates regularly —“to deal with those sudden bouts of fear” — and began practicing yoga. She read The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a Pulitzer-prize winning book on the history of cancer research and treatment, and came to think of research in entirely new ways.

She also views “wellness” a bit differently now. “I believe I am well because I do the things I love — work, family leisure activities — every day, while being thankful for the wonderful people in my life.”

“I don’t think cancer is a gift,” she says. “I think it’s an opportunity to ground yourself and remember what’s important in life.”

Norsen has been involved in health care for 42 years, although she was never the “patient,” and most of her work revolved around heart disease. Cancer was a new beast, and she’s come to appreciate the top-notch care offered at Wilmot, she says.

“Many of my family and friends pushed me to consider MD Anderson (Texas), the Cleveland Clinic, or Boston,” she recalls. “But after I met my providers here, my answer to them was: ‘I’m in the right place.’ This is not a solo journey and my team and all of the staff has been incredible.”

What put her at ease? They took time to know her, and considered her preferences every step of the way. “I love every one of them and respect them,” Norsen says.

“I don’t think cancer is a gift,” she says. “I think it’s an opportunity to ground yourself and remember what’s important in life.”