I met Luanne Norvell last year, just before the start of basketball season. Her daughter, Susan Brooks had sent an email, proudly gushing about her mother fighting cancer without missing a beat of VCU fandom. She had surgery in the morning and tailgated at the CAA Tournament in the afternoon. She baked brownies for the folks at Massey Cancer Center. She wore black and gold wigs. Brooks called her mother an inspiration.
Norvell worked in the VCU School of Dentistry and was as big a VCU fan as I’ve met. The impression I got after meeting her was that she loved three things: God, her family and VCU Basketball. She spent the first 15 minutes of our meeting asking about my son. She also told me about her time as a chaperone for the Varina High School band, and how she once caught a mischievous drum major named Ryan Kopacsi sneaking out of his hotel room. I eventually had to steer the conversation back to her for fear that I would run out of time before I had to leave.
Luanne was a delight. Unfailingly positive, greatful and optimistic, she talked about her breast cancer in the past tense. Unfortunately, a couple of days after the start of basketball season, she emailed me to thank me for the feature I’d written on her for the men’s basketball program and to let me know they’d found spots on her lungs.
We maintained an occasional email correspondence throughout the year as she battled the cancer, pneumonia, a bacterial infection. Even as she wrote about the awful stuff, she remained upbeat. In one of our last exchanges, she asked me if there was a way to secure a Briante Weber autograph for a little boy at her sister’s school who “thinks he’s the best basketball player alive.”
Luanne Norvell passed away on April 29 after fighting the good fight for the better part of the last two years.
In Luanne’s office, there was a decorative piece, a plaque, a framed photo, I don’t exactly remember, but it contained a quote often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.
She talked about how much that quote meant to her, how it inspired her. She kept chasing that ideal, to make other people’s lives happier, better. In turn, she inspired others. She inspired me. Someday, her unyielding spirit will help someone else beat cancer. Of this, I am convinced. Maybe she’ll save my life too. While Luanne has passed on, I hope she knows how successful she really was.
Below is my original feature on Luanne Norvell. I never ran it online after she learned the cancer spread. But I read it this morning for the first time since November. I thought it would be upsetting, but instead, it made me smile. I hope it captures even a sliver of her spirit, her joy, her hope for the future and her love of others (and VCU hoops, of course). I hope she inspires you too.
CANCER HASN’T SLOWED THIS RAMS FAN
By Chris Kowalczyk
It was a Thursday night, and Luanne Novell’s hair was falling out. The chemotherapy to treat the cancer in her right breast was killing her hair cells. Finally, she’d had enough. Norvell stopped cooking dinner and told her husband, Danny, she’d be right back.
Norvell drove to a local salon and asked to have her head shaved. The beautician flipped on the clippers and put them to Norvell’s scalp, but the 57-year old Varina resident stopped her.
“Do you think you could shave ‘VCU’ in the back of it?” Norvell asked.
Some might call Luanne Norvell’s approach to her cancer treatment unconventional, even if she doesn’t see it that way.
Danny and Luanne Novell have been VCU Men’s Basketball season ticket holders since the early 80s. Luanne has worked for the School of Dentistry since 2008, and her office is splashed from wall-to-wall in black and gold. There are photos from games, pom poms and trinkets all around. On the wall behind her, four VCU Basketball t-shirts hang as a de facto homage to hoops. To the left of her desk hang a pair of jeans signed by Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. Rozzell is her favorite player, by the way. He, like Danny and Luanne, graduated from Highland Springs High School.
VCU Basketball games are a family affair to the Norvells. Daughters, grandkids, friends, high school buddies, everybody’s there. Luanne even makes sure her granddaughter Molly, now 2 years old, has her own mini VCU cheerleading outfit.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s a family thing and we just have a blast with it.”
But last Christmas, Norvell found a lump on her right breast. A biopsy confirmed a cancerous growth, about four centimeters in diameter. Her doctors called it “malignant” and “aggressive.”
Two batches of chemotherapy followed, six weeks a piece. The first batch was encouraging, the second was not. The cancer had grown and was spreading to her lymph nodes. Norvell’s doctors presented her with several options, including more chemo.
“I said, I want it out,” Norvell recalls.
There’s not much that can slow down the effervescent Norvell, apparently not even cancer. A woman of deep faith, Norvell has remained upbeat while staring down the insidious disease.
“When she did the chemo and you could tell she just felt awful, she never stopped smiling,” said her daughter, Susan Brooks said.
For years, Norvell had tailgated with family and friends prior to the CAA Tournament at the Richmond Coliseum. This year, she was scheduled to have surgery to install a chemotherapy port on the morning of the first day of games. She was still at the Coliseum by noon. After she shaved her head, Norvell showed up at work in a black and gold wig. On her final day of chemotherapy, Norvell baked brownies for her doctors and nurses at the Massey Cancer Center.
“Chemo, I hate to say this, the treatment days were fun,” Norvell admitted. “I would go down, they’d hook me up to a drip and I would get to talk to all these people, read my Kindle and play games.”
Only when she talked about the days when chemotherapy robbed her of her strength and kept her from playing with Molly and her grandson, Jackson, did Norvell reveal even a hint of frustration.
“My biggest thing is, I need to beat this so I can be here for these grandbabies,” Norvell said, her voice wavering slightly. “They’ve got a lot of life in them, so I need to be here so I can spend time with them. One of the most exciting things after the surgery was the first time I picked up my grandson…I thought, ‘I’m back.’”
But Luanne hasn’t had to go at it alone. In addition to her family – “Dad has been my mom’s backbone,” Brooks said – Norvell been buoyed by her coworkers. Despite months of treatment, Norvell earned a promotion over the summer. By April, she had exhausted all
of her vacation, but because she hadn’t used her time consecutively, coworkers were unable to donate their extra leave. So they took up a collection and presented Norvell with an envelope containing $900.
“I sat out in the chair out there and just cried,” Norvell said. “I didn’t know who to hug first, who to thank first. I was just overwhelmed.”
On Aug. 8, doctors at Massey Cancer Center performed a mastectomy and removed 14 lymph nodes, three of which were cancerous. Six weeks of radiation followed, and she says her doctors are confident that “they got it all.” On Nov. 7, Norvell completed her final radiation treatment, just in time for basketball season.
“[People] tell me, they say things like, ‘You’re brave’, or, ‘You’re an inspiration’,” Norvell said. “This is just me. When I want to do something, I’m going to do it.”