Editor's note: This is the final installment of 'Sink or Swim,' a series that followed Franklin resident Brittany Norris through her journey fighting cancer. Norris was 17 years old when she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Installments of this series have appeared periodically and documented the triumphs and challenges of Norris' journey with cancer.
Good minutes and bad moments.
That’s how grieving mother Alanna Koehler describes life after losing her daughter, Brittany Norris of Franklin, to cancer.
“With Brittany, I think the biggest thing, she never gave up,” Koehler said. “Brittany never lost hope.”
Norris, a high school swimming athlete who had aspired to become an oncology nurse as she began her studies at Carroll University in Waukesha, died March 28 following a 22-month fight with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that, according to the National Cancer Institute, is most common in adolescents and young adults.
She was 19.
Beginning to end
The life-altering diagnosis dates back to 2015, just days before Norris’ 18th birthday. Sitting in a doctor’s office, she received the news that would thrust her family into a regimen of appointments, hospital stays and prayers.
In the end, it was her lungs that posed the most immediate threat to Norris' life, Koehler said. With function levels toppling in at just half a lung, breathing was difficult.
“Between all of the tumors, she had swollen lymph nodes,” she said. “There was so much fluid built up and because of the swollen lymph nodes, there was no place to go.”
Throughout her hard-fought battle, Norris kept an infectious smile on her face, family and friends said. Whether it was an early morning doctors appointment full of needle pokes and prodding, shaving her deep brunette hair in anticipation of chemotherapy or laughing with family at home while feeling less than her best, Norris was usually cracking a smile.
Staying positive through challenges was a trait Norris had long before her diagnosis, said her former swim coach at Franklin High School Sarah Giuliani.
“I remember Brittany always had a smile on her face and was always willing to give it 100 percent. The workouts were brutal,” said Giuliani, who remained in contact with Norris through much of her fight with cancer. “She never complained about anything.”
Norris’ teammates looked up to her, said Giuliani, “because she was nice to everyone, and high school girls aren’t always nice.”
Inspired by cancer
After her senior swim season at Franklin High School came to a close, Norris experienced occasional leg pain. Thinking it was simply a side effect of long hours in the swimming pool, Norris ignored the discomfort.
But months passed and the pain continued. Norris visited an orthopedic specialist and spent more than a month in physical therapy. On the brink of enrolling as a nursing student at Carroll University, an X-ray showed Norris’ right femur had nearly disintegrated at the hands of a cancerous tumor.
Norris pushed through college courses. She worked on assignments for her online psychology course – even during downtime at the hospital. She planned to become an oncology nurse, a field in which she could relate to others’ struggles on a profound level, Koehler said.
“Brittany was a student pursuing a dream in pediatric nursing,” read an email sent to Carroll students by the Rev. Elizabeth E.P. McCord, Carroll's chaplain and director of spiritual life. “She wanted to be able to help kids in the way nurses helped her. Despite her diagnosis with (Ewing’s sarcoma), she wanted to continue to chase her dreams.”
Just a little more than a day before Norris died, she frantically woke her mother, concerned about a quiz she forgot to take.
“That just tells you, that was so important to her,” Koehler said. “Even in the end.”
Choosing to enter the oncology branch of medicine – an area that deals with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer – said a lot about who her daughter was, Koehler said.
“Instead of sitting there going, ‘This isn’t fair, this sucks, I don’t understand why it happened to me,’ (her mindset was) I’m going to take what I’ve gone through and help other kids,” Koehler said. “I’m going to understand what it’s like to feel sick and nauseous all the time. I can help them and I can tell them I understand.”
There were many points in her battle with cancer that Norris could have given up: when her scans lit up with tumors after returning from her Make-A-Wish trip to London, when tumorous lumps appeared one day on her skull, when her blood counts were too low to effectively administer chemotherapy and even enter into medical trials and when doctors told her in July she had just six months to live.
“Brittany decided to prove them wrong,” Koehler said.
And so Norris persisted. Her family took a trip to Disney and adopted a puppy. She went to class and spent time with loved ones. She never stopped pursuing her dreams, her mother said.
Norris’ compassion for helping others helped spark the creation of Brittany’s Hope Foundation, which strives to raise money for young adults battling childhood cancer.
During her long stays in the hospital, Norris befriended others her age also battling cancer, Koehler said. It wasn’t long before the group realized that patients their own age didn’t receive the same special services that young children did.
“It became almost a joke to them, everything that was posted, everything that was put out there,” Koehler said. “(A company would offer) free birthday cakes to cancer patients. They’d look it up and you have to be under 18.”
During an unexpected long day at the hospital, Norris and her family were looking for something to do, but the only board games that were available included Candyland and Chutes and Ladders – games that were geared toward young children.
One day, a nurse told the family she wished she could give a gift to the patients who came in on their birthdays, but the only things available at the hospital were geared toward younger children, Koehler said. That conversation served as a sort of epiphany for Norris, who discussed starting a foundation with her mother long before she died.
Norris decided she wanted her foundation to offer comfort to patients her age – those who weren’t young children, but were treated in children’s units. Maybe the comfort would be a homemade blanket that could cover the long legs of teenagers, or maybe it would be a bucket-list item, Koehler said.
“There’s more to cancer than the 5-year-old you see on St. Jude commercials,” Koehler said.
The community has rallied around the grieving family, too.
The Brittany Norris Memorial Swimathon organized by Norris’ former boss at the Southwest YMCA in Greenfield, Austin Egloff, and staff is scheduled for Saturday, April 29. The swimathon, which costs $50 to enter and is open to the general public regardless if they are a member at the YMCA, will benefit children unable to afford swimming lessons.
“The staff here just decided we needed to do something,” Egloff said. “Something more than having a presence at the visitation and funeral, something that honors what she would want.”
Norris completed swim lessons at the Southwest YMCA before becoming a coach and working as a lifeguard. She will leave a “lasting impact” on the staff, Egloff said.
“She really had a passion for the kids,” Egloff said, adding he hopes the swimathon becomes an annual event. “She had an infectious personality. The sheer and utter hope she has for everything and that sparkle she had, she was able to transfer that into the lessons.”
Carroll University asked its students to keep Norris’ spirit alive by supporting each other through the good times and the bad.
“She touched the lives of many with her amazing smile, courage, determination and kind heart,” McCord said. “She was an inspiration to all her classmates. She would want all her classmates to remember to chase their dreams.”
If you go
What: Brittany Norris Memorial Swimathon
Where: Southwest YMCA, 11311 W. Howard Ave., Greenfield
When: 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. Saturday, April 29
Why: All proceeds ($50 entry fee) will benefit the Southwest YMCA’s annual campaign in memory of Brittany Norris. Funds raised will be used toward areas she was passionate about -- water safety and teaching children how to swim.
How: To register, contact Austin Egloff at email@example.com or 414-329-3870
Support the cause: Donate to Brittany’s Hope Foundation at bit.ly/2pecBkQ.