“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.” – Shannon Miller, Olympian
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.
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.”