Lessons From the Olympics Help Shannon Miller Through Ovarian Cancer TreatmentSep 2, 2016
Seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller says lessons she learned while training for gymnastics competitions helped her endure the rigors of treatment for ovarian cancer. “A huge part of my success as an athlete was that I had the mental game. To get through the toughest moments of treatment I relied on goal setting and keeping that positive mentality,” said Miller.
Miller was 33 when she found out she had ovarian cancer. It was fall 2010 and she had almost skipped her regular women’s health exam. She was a new mother to 1-year-old Rocco, had recently launched her company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle: Health and Fitness for Women, and just felt too busy with life and work to go for a checkup. But just as she was calling to cancel the appointment, she had a change of heart.
“I started thinking – I was working in the health field interviewing physicians for my weekly radio show talking about early detection, and I thought ‘I’m not setting a good example by skipping an exam,’” she said. So she kept her appointment – a decision that helped her doctor find the cancer in an early stage.
During a routine pelvic exam, Miller’s doctor found a baseball sized mass on her ovary that turned out to be an ovarian germ cell tumor, a rare form of ovarian cancer. Miller later realized she’d actually had signs of ovarian cancer – stomach ache, bloating, and weight loss. But because these are also often signs of much less serious problems, she didn’t even think to report them to her doctor.
Miller had surgery to remove the tumor and then 9 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy to give her the best chance of keeping the cancer from coming back. The cancer was stage II – it was caught before it had spread to other parts of her body.
‘Will I ever have children again?’
Before surgery, Miller’s doctor didn’t know what he was going to find. He had a frank conversation with Miller and her husband about whether they wanted to be able to have another child someday. He asked them about how aggressive he should be about removing the mass vs. preserving her fertility. “Both my husband and I knew he had to be as aggressive as possible,” said Miller. “We needed to do everything we could to make sure our son had a mom.”
But they also talked to the doctor about all their options. After surgery – which removed one ovary and one fallopian tube – they decided to save eggs before Miller started chemotherapy.
“I didn’t want to have any regrets. If you bring an umbrella, it won’t rain – that’s how I thought about it,” said Miller. “We decided we will take advantage of every opportunity available; then if we needed to have a plan B, we were prepared.”
A tough road
Treatment was tough, both physically and emotionally. Miller’s doctor called it the “hit ‘em hard, ‘em fast” approach. She would have chemotherapy 5 days a week for 9 weeks, starting about a month after her surgery. She told herself, “I can do anything for 9 weeks.”
But by the end of the first week, she had such severe nausea and vomiting, she was unable to keep even water down and was forced to check into the hospital to receive IV fluids. By week two, Miller’s hair fell out and she experienced severe fatigue and neuropathy, a nerve pain, in her hands.
“My next true moment was with me and God in that room thinking, ‘How do I do this?’” said Miller. “I kept coming back to the realization that I don’t have to do this alone. I have my faith, and I have my team around me. I reminded myself I wasn’t the only one going through this.”
Miller finished her chemo on May 2, 2011. “I thought I was going to have all my energy back, that my hair would grow back. I expected to feel better,” said Miller. “But the neuropathy in my hands was so bad, I couldn’t open a bottle of water. I felt like each limb weighed a thousand pounds and I could barely will myself to get out of bed. When I was in Olympic training 7 days a week, I never felt this kind of fatigue.”
She got help from another cancer survivor, her mother, who helped her understand she would feel better – but it would take time.
Life as a survivor
Miller says it took about a year before she felt like herself again. She was still extra tired and taking naps right up until the 2012 Summer Olympics in London where she covered gymnastics for the media. Shortly after she returned home from London, she found out she was pregnant. Her daughter Sterling is now 3 years old.
Today, Miller travels the country telling her cancer story and encouraging women to take care of themselves, “I use whatever voice I have from my Olympic career to encourage women to keep medical appointments, get more sleep, eat right, get and stay fit, and recognize the signs and symptoms of cancer,” she says.
In June, in honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, Miller spoke at a cancer survivors’ reunion sponsored by the American Cancer Society and Extended Stay America hotels, which donates hotel stays to cancer patients whose best option for cancer treatment is away from home.
“Extended Stay America does so much for those going through a cancer diagnosis. There is so much involved beyond treatment for patients and caregivers,” said Miller. “I enjoy the opportunity to speak to survivors. We are all at a different place in our journey, but we can learn something from every story. Learning more and being around other survivors or reading about them is important because it gives you hope. The more we can do to create awareness the better, so we are catching cancer earlier when there are more options for treatment.”
“The biggest lesson I learned was how much I needed to appreciate every day,” said Miller. “No matter where you are in your journey, you can take that day and do your best with it. I used to fly through life. I didn’t take time to savor it. I was always go, go, go. Now I understand the importance of really taking time to appreciate every moment.”
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