A Life Worth Living

In 1997, Tamara Nored was on top of the world. Literally.

The vice president of sales, marketing, and client services for Houston, TX-based Griffin Meetings & Incentives was standing atop a 10,000-foot mountain peak in Switzerland, celebrating her latest successful incentive trip with a group of satisfied customers. Surrounded by the Swiss Alps, Nored raised a glass of champagne to join in the group's toast. At that moment, she felt a burning sensation in her right breast.

Right then, I knew my body was telling me something," she says.

Within months, Nored was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, or stage-I breast cancer, and underwent a complete mastectomy of her right breast.

One week after that, she was back in the office, running her department, developing incentive programs, and attending industry events all over the world. And from then on, Nored refused to take any more time off for health-related reasons—not during any of the long series of hormonal treatments she was prescribed to prevent a recurrence, and not when the cancer aggressively returned five years later. Instead, she continued to be her company's top performer and an active member of myriad industry organizations and associations.

And throughout it all, Nored, now 46 years old, has consistently credited the work and the people in the incentive industry for supporting her—and inspiring her—to continue, not only to defy her medical odds, but also to thrive in a career and life that she loves.

A difficult diagnosis
When Nored discovered a small lump in her right breast, she immediately went to the doctor. She had a mammogram, which showed no abnormalities. Her doctors told her not to worry—it was probably nothing. They could send her to a breast surgeon if she was really worried, they said, but they didn't think it was necessary. She was inclined to agree. She was, as they told her, the picture of health. She exercised regularly, ate well, and took care of herself. She felt fine.

But on that mountaintop in Switzerland, Nored just knew. As soon as she returned to the States, she insisted on a biopsy. "Sure enough, it was a cancerous tumor," she says. She chose to have the mastectomy. To reduce the risk of recurrence, doctors recommended a course of chemotherapy, but she declined. Her husband is an 18-year cancer survivor, and she had seen firsthand how destructive that type of therapy can be. So she opted instead for tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy commonly prescribed to discourage cancer from returning to women who have had estrogen-receptor-positive tumors.

For a while, everything was fine. The incentive department that Nored had created at Griffin was growing and soon comprised many of the firm's top accounts. She was actively involved with a host of industry associations, including the National Business Travel Association (NBTA), the Texas Business Travel Association (TBTA), and, most of all, the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE). Nored attended every SITE event she possibly could, and almost always brought her mother, Marcia Cobb, along.

An accomplished businesswoman herself, Cobb was the first female food broker in Texas, and had founded her own company, which she ran together with her husband. After he passed away in 1998, Nored invited her mother to join her on a business trip. "She just loves people, and I thought I could help get her back out among some great people," Nored says. Since then, Cobb has accompanied Nored on practically every trip she's taken—and to every SITE event. As a result, she's become a recognizable figure in her own right, known throughout the industry as "Momma SITE." ("SITE has basically adopted her as an honorary member," says SITE CEO Brenda Anderson.) "It's been good for her and good for the industry, I think," Nored says. "And it's been good for me, especially when things started happening with my health. It's nice that she's there, just in case, and we get to do things together that we wouldn't normally do."

During these years, Nored went in for blood work every month to make sure that the cancer hadn't returned. During one such visit, Nored's doctor noticed that her tumor markers were elevated. A CAT scan revealed that not only had the cancer returned, it had metastasized, or spread, to her liver and throughout her abdomen. Nored was scheduled for a hysterectomy (to reduce her body's production of estrogen, which can stimulate tumor growth). "They opened me up and closed me back up right away," she says. During the surgery, doctors discovered a staggering 129 malignant tumors throughout her abdomen. They didn't think she would survive the procedure.

Nored did survive, and she refused to lose hope or indulge in any sadness. "Everyone was crying when I woke up, so I set some ground rules. I told them I needed to have positive people around me and positive energy," she says. And it was for those reasons that she immediately returned to work. "We are so blessed in this industry," she says. "The incentive world is such a good world, and when you travel around, you see that we're all the same, and everyone is very caring and basically has the same values. And we're all here to encourage each other and lift each other up."

But she did face an uphill battle. "I was stage IV at that point," Nored says. "That's usually the last stage." Generally speaking, doctors say that the life expectancy for a patient with cancer so advanced is less than a year. That was in 2003.

Full Steam Ahead
Determined to avoid the severely destructive side effects of chemotherapy, Nored began what would become a long series of hormonal treatments to fight the cancer. "We tried just about every hormonal therapy they have," she says. "I'd go for a couple of years, and then the cancer would come back, or the therapy I was on would quit working, or the tumors would metastasize more." All the while, she continued to research more holistic, integrative approaches and worked with her doctors to develop an effective treatment strategy that combined the best elements of both conventional and alternative therapies.

Around this time, Nored was elected to SITE's international board of directors for a three-year term. Although she was still working full-time at Griffin, she accepted. "She was so ill when she was on the SITE board—I was mad at her for taking that on," says Heather Westendarp, president and owner of Griffin, and Nored's boss. "They were flying her all over the world. I said, 'Please tell them no.' But she wouldn't hear of it. She just loves the incentive business, and loves the people. It's her oxygen. She absolutely has a passion for incentive travel like I've never seen."

At the same time, Nored earned her Certified Corporate Travel Executive (CCTE) designation as well as her Certified Incentive Travel Executive designation (CITE), which required her to write a thesis. "There's never been a prognosis that's been really hopeful for me," Nored says frankly. "So I just keep living my life and working in this wonderful industry. I have a passion for it, and that brings me positive energy."

During her three years on SITE's international board of directors, Nored earned the universal respect of those with whom she served, even during contentious times. "She is the consummate professional," says J.J. Gubbins, president of TGC International in Chicago, who has worked closely with Nored. "To put it in Chicago slang, she's a rope holder. If you need something done, if you're in a lurch, if you're trying to get two parties together and you need someone to hold the rope, she's there. She's a very positive, optimistic, can-do person. And she's very sophisticated about the way she brings divergent thoughts together."

Specifically, Gubbins refers to the recent split of the SITE Foundation from the SITE organization. By all accounts, Nored's approach to the sometimes acrimonious divorce was objective and open-minded. "She proved to be a beacon of strength and steadfastness during [those] problems," says Paul Flackett, managing director of Frankfurt, Germany's IMEX, a major exhibition for the incentive travel industry.

"Every time there was an issue, she was always there with a fair opinion and one that was for the good of everyone—not self-serving in any way," Gubbins adds. "She exhibited such courage in giving 100-percent effort to helping all of us, regardless of the circumstances. I think that's incredible. And profound."

Nored says she just wanted to find a resolution that would benefit everyone equally. "I wasn't appointed official mediator, but I thought we could come to an amicable, win-win solution. My tumor markers were starting to come back up then, and I didn't need to be under a lot of stress, but I took that very seriously and emotionally.

"When I was elected [to the board], it was always my intention to do the best I could for the entire membership. I just wanted to stay true to the organization that's been so good to me, and I wanted to give back," she says. "I don't have a personal agenda, and I'm not looking to get into politics."

SITE CEO Anderson points out that the episode with the Foundation (now the Incentive Research Foundation) encompassed a very small part of Nored's time on the board but agrees that it demonstrated what Anderson calls Nored's spirit of cooperation. "She's always looking for the solution and never looking to place blame," she says. "She brings a real spirit of 'We can create whatever we want.' And when she walks in a room, she absolutely just lights it up."

The Life of The Party
Regardless of what's happening with her health, Nored's colleagues say lighting up a room is something that comes naturally to her. "She's just a breath of fresh air," Anderson continues. "She has so much passion for what she does. She could be the poster person for our industry because of that enthusiasm."

Roger Brownell, the chief financial officer of Scottsdale, AZ-based AZA Events, recalls a SITE meeting he had to attend in New York on behalf of his partner, who usually—and mercifully, as far as Brownell is concerned—handles the networking. "I was really dreading the whole idea of going by myself," Brownell says. "We were all out on a yacht, and I was just trying to stay out of the way and avoid everybody. So there I was, out on the back deck, all by my lonesome and I guess looking a bit forlorn, when here comes this tall, beautiful, blonde woman. She struts across the deck and says, 'Well here's a face that I recognize!' And she wound up spending the entire evening introducing me around very warmly to everyone and getting me really involved, when I had been thinking of just going back to the hotel. Every time I ended up in the corner, she'd come over, make sure I was all right. She was very generous with her time, and that made quite an impact on me. I've never forgotten that." It meant so much to Brownell that when he saw her at another SITE event the following year, he pulled her aside and told her how much her help and attention that night had meant to him.

But in Nored's opinion, she hadn't done anything out of the ordinary. "He said to me, 'You don't even know what you did for me,' " she says. "I never even realized I had touched the man's life."

"She's fought stage IV cancer for the last four years, which in itself is a miracle, and she's still the one who's dancing to the very last song," says Griffin's Westendarp. "I know I'm not the only guy attending incentive-travel-related events around the world who can say that Tamara may be his most frequent dance partner," confirms Terry Epton, president and CEO of USA Hosts in New Orleans.

"I'm still out there dancing," Nored says. "If I'm physically able, why not? Why quit living and doing the things that I love? Despite what others say—even if they're doctors—we have to decide how to live our lives. Are we going to be told how to live? Or will we embrace life and live it to the fullest? I think the incentive industry represents a lot of that with its reward and recognition programs. And my incentive is to keep living, enjoying my life, and hopefully giving back." At the recent 14th Annual Incentive Invitational in Jamaica, Nored's physical condition did prevent her from participating as much as she would have liked. "She would [rest] in the hotel room until evening came, and then go down to the dinner and functions," says her mother. "She'd walk in like there wasn't a thing wrong with her. She's not interested in people feeling sorry for her. She doesn't want it."

As a result, Nored rarely tells people about her disease unless it happens to come up in conversation. "I will share what's going on, but I don't go around telling everyone," she says. When she learned that fellow SITE member David Riddell, who passed away last year, was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, she immediately reached out to him, shared her story, and encouraged him to keep fighting. She remains very close friends with his wife. "He and I went through it together," she says. "He basically did what I'm doing now. He fought the fight strong."

The Power Of Purpose
As much as Nored has given to her work and the people around her, it's clear that the incentive industry has helped her in return. "It's hard for me to imagine a more pronounced example of prolonged and significant stress than the diagnosis and treatment of cancer," says Bruce Compas, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, who studies stress and specializes in coping with cancer. "For someone to hold on to work with such determination, I would hazard a guess that it's a testament to the meaning and value of that work. I would guess that she's not doing it because she has to, not doing it for the paycheck. She's doing it because it means something important and significant to her. That determination, that hopefulness—that comes from pursuing what matters to her in life."

What matters to Nored, clearly, is work and family, and she's found an industry in which one becomes the other. "When I got the diagnosis, I didn't feel like it was a total devastation—I felt I could get past it," Nored says. "Faith is number one, but number two is that I love my work. And that, to me, gives something back. I just want to stay involved, stay with the wonderful group of people who are my clients and my colleagues in the industry, and continue to research alternatives for getting well."

"Sigmund Freud once said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness, and he was absolutely right about that," says Compas. "That's what this story shows."

Hope and Healing
When the latest hormone treatment she was on stopped working, Nored decided to undergo chemotherapy for the first time. In March of this year, she sat down with the owners of Griffin Americas and discussed finally taking some time off to focus on her health. "They said, 'This has been going on for 10 years. It's time we get you well,' " Nored agreed, and drastically reduced her schedule. "But even so, I'm not out of it. I'm still out there, still attending events."

And she's still the company's top revenue producer. "Without her, we wouldn't even have an incentive department—she started it," Westendarp says. "She keeps it going and brings in all the business for it." Today, the firm's single largest account is one of Nored's. "It's pretty remarkable how her accounts keep growing, even though she's sick."

In June, when the side effects of the chemotherapy became unbearable, Nored embarked on a new combination of alternative and integrative therapies that are far less destructive to the body.

"I am constantly researching therapies that will build up the immune system while targeting the cancer so that the patient can have a good quality of life. Hospitals are starting to integrate the type of therapies I am looking for, and I am hoping that one of them will work for me," she says. "When you are in stage IV, they [say there's no cure], however I know of people that have been healed in stage IV after having been given no hope, and that's what I'm shooting for. Once I am healed I hope to be able to help thousands of others like me by giving them hope and information to make informed choices for their healing."

Originally published July 01, 2007

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