Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller wants women to prioritize their health. She knows how important it is because she almost didn’t make her own health a priority.
“My cancer journey began with a doctor’s visit that I almost cancelled,” she says. “I was already involved with women’s health and advocating for the importance of regular doctor’s visits and the importance of focusing on our personal health.
“I admit wanting to walk the walk played a part in getting me to that appointment, an appointment that changed my life.”
Miller’s doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on her left ovary. After weeks of tests and scans, in January 2011, Miller — a seven-time Olympic medalist, including two gold, two silver, and three bronze medals — had surgery and was diagnosed with rare form of ovarian cancer. Luckily, her cancer was caught early, and after aggressive chemotherapy, she’s been cancer-free for over 10 years.
According to the American Cancer Society, only 20% of ovarian cancers are diagnosed early and nearly 20,000 women will be diagnosed with this ovarian cancer this year. Often, ovarian cancer isn’t detected until it’s already spread to the pelvis and belly. It can be more difficult to treat at a later stage.
It’s important for women to know that there is no specific test for ovarian cancer, but knowing the signs and symptoms, listening to your body, and getting regular exams can help you know when something is off.
Prior to her diagnosis, Miller didn’t suspect anything was wrong. While she had stomachaches, weight loss, and bloating — three primary symptoms of ovarian cancer — she dismissed them all.
“These symptoms didn’t even register as something I need to pay attention to in the least,” she says. “Not when I had a to-do list a mile long. Not as a new mother. Not with a new company to run.”
Miller says she was so busy that she wasn’t focused on what her body was telling her. She’s glad she went to the appointment.
Now 45 and a mother of two, she credits her athletic background with helping her on her cancer journey. After her diagnosis, she focused on setting goals, working with her team, and trying to keep a positive attitude.
“My goals were not Olympic-sized goals,” she says. “On some of the most difficult days during chemotherapy, my goal was to get up, get dressed, and then walk around the dining room table twice. That was my win.”
She embraced the idea of teamwork when she started chemotherapy. She didn’t want to burden anyone, but at the end of the first week she was back in the hospital because she was unable to keep down food or water. She quickly realized her medical team, family, friends, and neighbors were all ready to support her.
“I learned the hard way that not only could I accept help when offered, but that it was also important to ask for help when needed,” she says.
The way forward
Miller always tries to focus on the next step forward. As a motivational speaker and a women’s health advocate, she’s honored to share her story. That includes working with Our Way Forward, which provides free resources for women living with ovarian cancer.
Miller encourages women to be mindful about their health, including good nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress management, and regular check-ups.
“If there is one thing that my cancer journey has vividly reminded me, it’s that if we aren’t healthy, we cannot be here for all of those the depend on us,” she says. “We cannot get out and do all the things we want and need to do. We must make our health a priority.”