Oncology nurse finds perspective in cancer diagnosis

Heartfelt blog opens doors to new possibilities

Lindsay NorrisLindsay Norris is planning a fort sleepover.

Her 3-year-old son, Harrison, set that goal. It’s the reward they’ll enjoy when she completes treatment for stage III colorectal cancer.

An oncology nurse at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, Lindsay, 33, has supported hundreds of patients. But nine years of experience didn’t prepare her to become a patient herself.

In mid-2016, Lindsay gave birth to her second child, a daughter she and her husband, Camden, named Evelyn. But weeks later, uncomfortable symptoms she’d associated with pregnancy – hemorrhoids, upset stomach, urgent bowel movements and sciatic pain – failed to subside. Absorbed with the joys and challenges of a newborn, Lindsay paid the symptoms little mind.

“I carried my son only to 30 weeks, so I chalked this up to late pregnancy I hadn’t experienced before,” Lindsay said. “I thought it was normal. But the symptoms worsened, and suddenly, it was 10 weeks later.”

A journey begins

Lindsay’s primary care provider advised her to visit a specialist. During her work day, Lindsay saw colorectal surgeon Joseph Valentino, MD.

“I went in for the rectal exam,” she said. “I expected to pop right back to work. But I saw Dr. Valentino’s wheels turning. He’d felt the mass right away.”

Lindsay was moved to a procedure room for a proctoscopy, an examination of the interior of the rectum. Then the questions began.

“People started asking things like, ‘how far away does your husband work?’” Lindsay said. “I know how to read between the lines.”

Lindsay’s pathology was confirmed. Her staging scans – CT and MRI – revealed a 5-centimeter mass and seven enlarged lymph nodes.

“The care team at the cancer center is absolutely the best,” Lindsay said. “There is nothing more amazing than to see them go into action. It was like a tornado of action all for me.”

Lindsay began oral chemotherapy and radiation and then had a complete abdominal perineal resection, a surgery that would require a permanent colostomy. She would later have another course of chemotherapy.

The right care team

She already had the utmost respect for her colleagues, but Dr. Valentino boosted Lindsay’s confidence in her providers even higher.

“Rectal cancer requires a multimodal treatment team and plan,” he said. “As an academic medical center, we have a lot to offer. We have subspecialty trained surgeons. We have experienced medical and radiation oncologists. We have advanced imaging techniques and highly skilled radiology staff. The first opportunity to cure rectal cancer is the best opportunity. We offer the critical combination of experience and strong surgical technique to achieve the best patient outcome at that first opportunity.”

Lindsay’s care team was committed not only to eliminating her cancer, but to minimizing risks cancer treatment can introduce. For example, according to oncologist Raed Al-Rajabi, MD, the team took great care to protect her ovaries. Lindsay and Camden had completed their family, but the premature loss of ovaries can invite osteoporosis, heart disease and early-onset menopause.

“Because of her young age, we took a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach in determining her care,” said Dr. Al-Rajabi. “The disease was quite advanced at the point of diagnosis, and we wanted to minimize collateral damage while providing the life-saving therapy that was required.”

New perspectives

Despite the gravity of her condition, Lindsay’s infectious personality and enthusiasm for her profession helped keep her spirits high.

“I was fortunate to receive treatment at my workplace, so I didn’t take much time off during radiation,” Lindsay said. “There was nothing to be gained sitting around at home feeling sorry for myself. As a nurse, I hadn’t had very much interaction with radiation before. It was a really interesting process. I feel like I’ll bring new understanding the next time I take care of someone.”

During treatment, Lindsay shared a perspective she realized she had never had until she became a cancer patient. In a blog, Lindsay began, “Dear every cancer patient I ever took care of, I’m sorry. I didn’t get it.” The poignant insights caught the interest of publications including the Huffington Post website, Us and People magazines and sparked widespread reaction.

“I thought writing would be therapeutic, a chance to tell a story that weighed heavily on my heart,” Lindsay said. “But now that people have changed their approaches to patient care because of something I said, and patients have said I put into words how they felt – I feel I’ve done something.”

A bright outlook

Ever positive, Lindsay is looking resolutely forward. Her recent work has been in internal education, but this journey inspired new ideas.

“I miss my interaction with patients and would like to return to patient care,” she said. “I’d also like to talk to patient groups. Maybe I can help bridge gaps between patients and caregivers because I am both.”

“Lindsay has faced a difficult battle,” added Dr. Al-Rajabi. “She will help many, many people in the future based on her unique understanding.”

When she finishes treatment, Lindsay hopes to take Camden on a trip.

“He is so tired, but he never complains,” she said. “I remind myself this is temporary, but he is running the show.”

Lindsay is looking forward to that trip. But first, she has a fort sleepover to attend.

As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.