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With a Little Help from the Gator Nation

Working toward two degrees is challenging under any circumstances. While battling stage 4 brain cancer?

At this past December’s virtual graduation ceremonies, when President Fuchs congratulated students for having succeeded despite unprecedented challenges, his message hit home for one student in particular: Lily Norenberg (BSISE ’20, MSM ’20).

The 23-year-old had not only just received her master’s degree in management — six months after earning a bachelor’s in industrial and systems engineering — she had done so while battling stage 4 brain cancer.

Ponte Vedra Beach native Lily Norenberg earned two degrees from UF in 2020 while battling stage 4 brain cancer. She has been cancer free since December 2019. She is shown here celebrating her graduation on the UF campus. “I’m wearing a wig in these pics,” said Norenberg. “It was nice when I was totally bald and wanted to fit in, but I haven’t worn it since my hair started growing back. Short hair is so empowering, even if you didn’t choose it!”

“I felt like I had really accomplished something,” said Norenberg. “And I felt I was part of a family of sorts with all the other students whose names came up on screen.”

Becoming a double Gator crowned her 18-month fight against medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer more commonly found in children. After her initial diagnosis in August 2019, Norenberg underwent two brain surgeries at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and six weeks of proton-beam radiation at UF Health Jacksonville, along with weekly chemotherapy sessions.

“Thankfully, I got a month or so to heal after that before I started four months of what I refer to as ‘big chemo’ at UF Health Shands, which I finished in March 2020,” she said.

After a single semester off, the determined Gator continued her undergraduate coursework, fitting in exams and research papers around chemo and radiation appointments. The powerful treatments left her weak and unable to walk long distances, but with the help of UF’s Disability Resource Center she was able to resume and complete her master’s coursework in management last year, despite disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Norenberg underwent two brain surgeries in August 2019 at Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic. “This is me after my first surgery,” she said. “I was given the option not to have a second operation, but I’m so glad I did because the surgeon was able to remove much more of it than the biopsy he had planned.”

Her first clean MRI came in early December 2019, and no scans since have shown signs of returning cancer.

“Although my oncologist says I have to have two years of clean MRIs to be ‘in remission,’ I have been cancer free for more than a year!” she said proudly.

Norenberg said she owes her survival and ongoing return to health to an “amazing support system” that includes: experts at UF Health Shands and Jacksonville; her UF alum parents, Cynthia (BSA ’86) and Eric Norenberg (MD ’88); understanding professors and friends; her devoted Phi Mu sisters; a grandpa who shaved his head in solidarity; family yoga sessions; and the “ultimate weapon” — her mom’s healing grilled-cheese sandwiches.

“The Gator Nation rallied around me to help me beat this disease,” she said. “I will be forever grateful.”

Gator Nation News talked with Norenberg about her life-changing experience. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

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“Before starting radiation, they marked me up with all these Xs to make sure the machine radiated the exact right areas of my brain and spine,” said Norenberg. “I sported these super cool tattoos for almost three months. You can also see the flannel eye patch my aunt sewed to go over either side of my glasses so that I could see without squinting while I had double vision for over a month.”
We’re in awe of your resilience and determination to complete two degrees while battling brain cancer. When did you first suspect something might be wrong with your health?
In summer 2019 I was interning at UF Health in the operational effectiveness department. Around late June I started having weird, persistent headaches that got worse and worse. Then my coordination and energy went downhill and I got double vision. Initially, I was diagnosed with migraines, then vertigo and occipital neuralgia. During the break between summer B and fall semesters I went for an MRI in Jacksonville. The results showed a mass in my brain.
How quickly did you act after that scan?
I went to the emergency room as soon as we got the results and had more MRIs. On Aug. 20 they operated to take a 6cm brain tumor out at the Mayo Clinic. The next day, surgeons said the post-op MRI showed another smaller tumor hidden where they didn’t see it the first time, so they operated again on Aug. 22 and were able to remove most of that one. Both tumors turned out to be medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer that occurs in the cerebellum. About a month after that I started radiation and chemo.

Norenberg’s post-surgery treatment included radiation and chemo. “When my hair started falling out, it got super clumped one day in the shower so I had to shave it off as soon as possible,” said Norenberg. Her grandfather and father, shown here with Norenberg, arranged a surprise that night. “Grandpa shaved his head too in support,” said Norenberg. “I definitely cried over losing my hair, but because of my family, that night lives in my memory as one full of love and laughter.”

Support from friends uplifted Norenberg, shown here with fellow Phi Mu sister Sara Nemeth (right) in October 2019. “Sara wore a fun wig with me to a birthday party right after I lost my hair and before I’d bought a normal wig,” she said. “It made me feel a lot better about being bald.”
What was it like juggling those treatments with going to school?
I had to give myself a lot of grace and try not to compare myself to my previous academic performance. I put my master’s courses on hold for my first semester back [spring 2020] because I knew I would have to miss a decent amount of classes while doing a week of inpatient chemo each month for three months. I had only three courses left to finish my undergrad degree, so I gave that priority.
So, you completed the coursework for your bachelor’s degree while undergoing chemo? And then you pressed on with your master’s?
I was seriously considering not finishing my graduate degree, but once chemo was done and I could see myself really getting better I decided it was worth continuing. Before starting back I went to the Disability Resource Center to see what they could help me with. I felt strange asking for help since I had always identified as a very good and independent student. It turns out I had a super limited idea in my head of what the DRC does.

“In this family we fight together,” read the T-shirts that Norenberg’s family had made for Thanksgiving 2019. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the support that I had,” said the student. From left to right: Norenberg’s aunt Stephanie, Norenberg, mom Cynthia and little sister Jenny.

Norenberg’s radiation oncologist at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville was Dr. Michael Rutenberg (BS ’98, MD ’05, PhD ’07), shown here with Norenberg after she finished ringing the chimes to signal the end of her treatment on Nov. 5, 2019. “He would make jokes about being bald when I lost my hair because, as you can see, he’s bald too!” Norenberg said.
How did the DRC support you?
I explained to them everything I thought might impact my class participation — and this was before COVID, so I actually had to get to classes — including time I would have to spend in the hospital while missing class, muscle and coordination loss that made me walk very slowly which would make it hard to attend back-to-back classes, cancer fatigue which made getting up for my 8:30 a.m. class super hard, and hearing loss which one of the chemo drugs had given me. They were able to help me interface with my professors and coordinate special setups. They even told me that if a classroom was too noisy — due to construction outside, a loud air vent or stuff like that — they could have the whole classroom moved.
That is impressive. Your professors, I assume, worked with you too.
Thankfully, they all were accommodating. I’ll never forget my WebDSS professor, Meserret Karaca. She gave me her cell phone number to ask her questions any time, set up one-on-one office hours with me and even offered to come to my hospital room to help me study when we had an exam the week after an inpatient chemo session.
What were your thoughts when you first received your diagnosis?
This might sound weird, but I was actually relieved when the radiologist called to say I needed to go to the hospital ASAP because it meant there was a solution, after months of worsening symptoms and several incorrect diagnoses. Yes, it was a shock, and it took a while to sink in that I had cancer. But mostly what I thought about while in the hospital for 10 days for my craniotomies was how nice it was to not have a headache anymore, thanks to the steroids, and how loved I was. I had so many visitors. People were so, so kind. I think if everyone acted like that to everyone else all the time the world would be a much better place.

Norenberg’s grandmother (left) and Aunt Lynn (right) do simple yoga exercises alongside Norenberg as she builds up strength. One of the Gator’s goals is to do yoga without getting dizzy.

How has this experience changed your overall outlook?
It’s forced me to live in the moment and not worry about every little detail. I hope I hold on to that philosophy for the rest of my life: live in the moment and hold on to love. The rest will work itself out.
What does being a Gator mean to you?
Being connected, being part of something bigger that makes the world feel smaller and limitless all at the same time.

Norenberg and her Phi Mu “little sister” Jessica Browder (BS ’20) pose in front of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in December 2020. “Jess came to visit in Gainesville right before my master’s graduation,” said Norenberg, “so we took fun graduation pics to make up for our canceled ceremonies in May and my virtual ceremony in December.” The Greek letters on the pink stole say Phi Mu.