Climb every mountain: Junior theater major shares her journey with cancer
After a semester away to fight breast cancer, Van Norstrand is back at University of Portland.
Sammie Van Norstrand is used to challenges. In her hometown of Littleton, Colorado, she loves the challenges of hiking and mountain climbing. This past summer, she summited Mt. Bierstadt at an altitude of 14,065 feet.
But nothing could have prepared her for the greatest challenge of her life so far. In January of this year, as she got off her flight from Colorado to Portland and turned her phone off of airplane mode, she received a message from her mom: her results from the doctors were in, and she had breast cancer.
Van Norstrand, a junior theater major, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19. Breast cancer at her age is almost unheard of. After four rounds of chemo, Van Norstrand is cancer-free and back on campus as an RA in Shipstad. But the experience has changed her perspective of life.
Van Norstrand discovered a small lump in January 2017 and went to the Health and Counseling Center where they advised her to seek out more specialized medical help. They told her it was likely a benign cyst, which is common for women in their 20s.
“I was like, okay, I’m not going to worry about it,” Van Norstrand said.
Two months later, Van Norstrand followed up with a radiologist. The ultrasound did not reveal anything significant and, while she was advised to keep an eye on it, she was told that it was most likely benign.
In January 2018, she went in for a checkup, just to be smart. The doctors discovered that the mass had grown substantially and wanted to biopsy it to figure out what it was.
“I just wanted to get this out of my life,” Van Norstrand said. “I just wanted to continue college and be the normal 19-year-old that I was at the time.”
Van Norstrand had the biopsy procedure, and received news of her diagnosis the next day while she was in the Portland airport. Her mom and radiologist had been trying to call her while she was in the air. She did not expect her mom to tell her that she had breast cancer.
“I’ll never forget that moment because it was, you know, the most surreal moment of my life,” Van Norstrand said.
After another phone call with her radiologist, it became clear that she would have to take a medical leave of absence from school for the spring semester of 2018.
When she arrived back to campus, Van Norstrand broke the news to her roommate and closest friends. A community of people rallied to support her. Her hall director, Yvonne Ayesiga, was especially supportive in helping her sort out the process of taking a semester off to get treatment.
“You are a light,” senior Natalie Werner said, referring to Van Norstrand. “You are an inspiration, and you make everyone want to be a better person.” Werner is one of Van Norstrand’s closest friends and supported her through her treatment.
Van Norstrand is very involved in Campus Ministry and recalled the support of former Campus Minister for Faith Formation, Beth Barsotti, who suggested that Van Norstrand receive the Catholic sacrament, Anointing of the Sick. In February, Van Norstrand received the sacrament at the Chapel of Christ the Teacher where Fr. Pat Hannon presided.
“I just knew that UP was so special because they were able to do that for me,” Van Norstrand said.
During her semester off, Van Norstrand underwent surgery and did four rounds of chemotherapy to battle the cancer. During her journey, an impactful Confession experience back home in Colorado with a priest from a local parish reminded her of the power of her faith in her journey.
“He told me that this experience, no matter who you encounter it with, even if you encounter it with people who do have cancer as well, they will never be able to understand your suffering like God does,” Van Norstrand said.
After undergoing chemotherapy, eventually Van Norstrand lost her hair. Although she cut it shorter in stages so that the hair loss was less dramatic, it was still a difficult experience for her.
“I really tried to accept it and it was really hard, I’m not going to lie,” Van Norstrand said. “I didn’t really like to hide it because I didn’t think it was something I had to hide. I think it was something that made me me, in this weird way. Throughout the whole summer I was contemplating in my prayer how I could be a cancer patient but not let it define me.”
Today, Van Norstrand is technically cancer-free, though she has to have routine blood work for the next year to check for signs of possible cancer. However, if the results continue to come back clean, she will be considered to be in full remission.
Now back on campus, Van Norstrand is serving as an RA in Shipstad Hall. When asked how this experience has influenced the way she leads as an RA, Van Norstrand talked about the importance of being there for people.
“If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s how important it is to reach out to a person and really get to know them and ask them their story,” Van Norstrand said. “I think I experienced more pain this semester from people who weren’t there for me than being on that plane.”
Already an optimistic person before cancer, the experience has only strengthened her faith and positive outlook on life.
“It really showed the true colors of the friends that were there for me, and showed me that life is such a gift,” Van Norstrand said. “Anyone who wants to participate in this beautiful gift of life with me, if anyone wants to run with me in the fields of life, let’s go.”
As for her future plans, Van Norstrand said that she wants to travel when she graduates. She said she wants explore the Austrian hillside and pretend to be the main character from one of her favorite musicals, The Sound of Music.
“I would just like love to backpack around Austria and be like Maria Von Trapp and be as independent and as wonderful as she is,” Van Norstrand said.
Van Norstrand also expressed her desire to work with other people who are suffering from cancer. Whether it’s being a social worker, providing resources to people or putting her experience into art, she wants to be a source of support for those dealing with trauma.
“I think right now I’d just like to be me,” Van Norstrand said.
Van Norstrand’s faith was a constant source of strength and comfort throughout her battle with cancer. In addition to her prayers, she turned to writing poetry as a way to cope with her struggle.
“Other than prayer I was really trying in the beginning of my journey to find a coping mechanism, just something that I (could use to) express my words,” Van Norstrand said. “People would ask me how I’m doing a lot and people would ask me what I’m thinking. My mom would ask me what I’m thinking and I could never tell her how I was thinking exactly, so I started writing poetry.”
Van Norstrand had never written poetry before she was diagnosed, but she offered to share her writing. What follows is an excerpt from the very first poem that she wrote, a reflection coming from her love of mountains.
“Yet this mountain. / This slow, gradual painful climb / of learning to / Be / Is quickly showing me how to be / Content / and ambitious / as so, / Because even mountains, / in their vast, zeal for / adventure and excitement, / have nothing to prove their beauty / other than just by / Being.”
Wes Cruse is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.