Olympic champion using her cancer to educate women

Posted Feb. 25, 2011, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 25, 2011, at 9:27 p.m.

With a toddler on the verge of walking, a busy work schedule and the holidays approaching, the last thing Shannon Miller really had time for was her annual checkup. Maybe, she thought, she’d cancel it, reschedule it once things calmed down.

Besides, at 33, she felt perfectly fine, and was as fit as she was 15 years ago when she won two gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics.

“We think we’re invincible,” the gymnast said. “That we have too much on our plate so it can wait.”

It can’t.

During that annual exam, doctors discovered a cyst on Miller’s ovary that turned out to be a germ cell malignancy. The tumor is not the same as what most people think of as ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Germ cell malignancies are rare, and generally occur in teenagers and women under 30.

But the effects could have been just as devastating. By catching it early, however, Miller has the best possible prognosis. She is cancer-free after doctors removed the baseball-sized tumor last month and is opting to do nine weeks of preventive chemotherapy that will improve her cure rate to 99 percent. She begins treatment March 7.

Now, Miller hopes sharing her story will encourage other women to make their health a priority.

“Early detection was so key in my situation. If I hadn’t gone in for the exam, it could have been another year, which would have been a completely different prognosis,” Miller told The Associated Press. “Make your health a priority. Do not delay. Do not reschedule. We talk about it constantly, but we still find ourselves creating excuses or simply running out of time to go in and go see our doctors.

“Personally, I want people to know that I’m OK,” she added. “I definitely have my pity-party days. I definitely have my days when I think about losing my hair and not being able to do all of things I want to do the next few months. When I start getting upset about it, I think, ‘Wow, I’m so blessed they caught it this early, and I have such a positive prognosis. If that means nine weeks of chemo, a year from now, is that going to matter when I’m here for my son and I’m here for my family?’ It’s all going to be OK.”

With seven Olympic medals and nine from the world championships, Miller is the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history. She is a two-time world all-around champion and was part of the “Magnificent Seven,” the only U.S. women’s gymnastics team to win Olympic gold.

After retiring, she got her law degree and was in high demand as a motivational speaker. But she found her niche advocating for healthy lifestyles, particularly for women. Her “Shannon Miller Lifestyle” website provides tips on a range of health topics including exercise, nutrition and pregnancy, and she does a radio show that focuses on health issues.

Like so many people, though, Miller found it tough to make time for her own health.

“I couldn’t see anything, I had no symptoms of any kind,” she said.

Told of the cyst, Miller assumed it would go away. But her doctor decided to do further tests, which showed it was malignant.

“Early detection for ovarian cancer is really our message because there is nothing that’s going to prevent you from getting ovarian cancer. The best we can do is early detection,” said Dr. Stephen Buckley, the gynecological oncologist who is treating Miller. “With germ cell malignancies and typical ovarian cancer, when a patient is diagnosed with early stage or Stage 1 cancer, which is what Shannon has, their prognosis is so much better.”

Doctors only had to remove the one ovary with the tumor, meaning Miller will be able to have more children. Chemotherapy wasn’t required, but, without it, there was a possibility the cancer could return. Miller and her husband, John Falconetti, have a 15-month-old son, Rocco, and the idea of her family living in limbo was scarier to her than the potential side effects of chemo.

“It’s nine weeks of not fun,” Miller said. “But at the same time, I look at my son every day, and I would have a very difficult time living my life every day wondering if and when it’s going to come back. You can’t really argue with 99 percent. That’s pretty good odds.”

Miller will have three, three-week cycles of chemo. She’ll have five days of treatment the first week, then one day each of the next two weeks before the cycle starts over.

“For Shannon and for other women who might have to go through something like this, it’s certainly a real challenge,” Buckley said. “But she can do this, and she can be just fine. A diagnosis of cancer certainly does change your life. But it’s not always the end. People don’t have to feel hopeless. She really has a tremendous future ahead of her, and I really do believe everything is going to be just fine.”

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On the web:

www.shannonmillerlifestyle.com

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