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Class of '13: Service senior didn't let tumor define experience

Michelle Theriault Boots
Bill Roth

This is the second in a series of profiles of outstanding 2013 graduates of Anchorage high schools.


When the headaches started, in the late winter of 2011, Karly Norton was a cheerleader with a learner's permit, a teenager immersed in her sophomore year at Robert Service High School.

The pain in her head wouldn't go away. She was sure she had a brain tumor, but doctors told her she was young and a tumor unlikely.

Finally, her mom Rochelle put her foot down.

"I said, 'I want an MRI and I want it today,' " Rochelle Norton said.

When the doctor called with the results of the brain scan, he asked if she was sitting down.

It was a brain tumor.

"I told you I wasn't crazy," Norton said when her parents told her.

While Norton spent the rest of high school dealing with her diagnosis -- including frequent MRIs and two brain surgeries -- the experience never defined her, said her father Kevin Norton.

"Karly, the one thing she didn't want to be known as was 'the tumor girl,' " he said.

On Wednesday night, the captain of the cheerleading squad and soon-to-be certified nursing assistant will graduate with her class at Service.

After the diagnosis, the family was told to get their daughter to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Ore., for immediate surgery to remove the tumor.

"That scares you a lot, when they say, 'Go now,' " Kevin Norton said.

That night, before their flight, Norton called her friends to tell them what was happening and invite them to a sleepover.

The family lugged all the mattresses in the house to their living room, where a gaggle of teenage girls spent the night talking about everything but Norton's brain tumor.

"We didn't want to sit around and be depressing," she said.

In Portland, doctors removed a golf-ball-sized tumor from Karly's brain, just above her right ear. It was not cancerous.

Karly was out of school for less than two weeks.

That was that, thought Karly -- a scary and painful episode was over. Now she could get back to fretting about her honors history class and football and hockey cheerleading.

The tri-monthly MRIs required to monitor her brain turned up clean. Eventually she was allowed to drive again.

But a year later "something showed up" on the fourth MRI, Norton said. It was bits of the tumor the surgeons hadn't found. To be safe, she'd have to undergo brain surgery again.

That was problematic. It was state hockey finals time. She had a class trip to Europe coming up.

"She had really wanted to wait (to do the surgery) so she could cheer in the hockey tournament," her mother said.

But the doctor warned that tumors like hers could morph quickly from benign to "something more evil."

The family made another trip to Portland. Mother and daughter squeezed in some prom dress shopping.

Loathe to return to taking the bus to school ("for freshmen and sophomores," the now-junior felt), Norton opted to take Tylenol instead of the powerful painkillers her doctors had prescribed.

She was out of school for just a week. Shortly after returning, she went on her class trip to Europe.

It's not that it was easy, her family says. It's that she didn't want a brain tumor to define her high school experience.

Still, recovery was hard in subtle ways. She grew tired and winded easily. She napped in the school nurse's office. She lost 40 pounds from the medication for the surgery.

"I was running around holding my pants up," she said.

She also opted to keep a full honors class load post-surgery, even when she could have chosen a less-demanding schedule.

At the school's Biomedical Career Academy, she job-shadowed at Providence Alaska Medical Center's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the Anchorage Pioneer Home and Providence Extended Care. Norton was especially taken with the hands-on element of the classes, said her teacher, Vani Pillai, coordinator of the career academy.

"I think that given her background and having had surgery, it was really good for her to be able to visualize these things and see them," Pillai said.

An anonymous nominator for the YWCA of Anchorage's Young People of Achievement called her a "perfect example of what personal strength, a positive outlook and determination can do to set the tone for one's life course."

She was among 10 ASD students honored as Young People of Achievement this spring.

Her MRIs are now every six months. She still gets headaches, but says they are manageable.

She's focused on the future. This summer, she will take her final tests to become a certified nursing assistant. She's already been accepted into the University of Alaska Anchorage's nursing program.

She hopes she'll end up back at Providence, the hospital where she got her original diagnosis -- this time as a nurse.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.