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An Olympic Hall-of-Famer Gets Candid About Ovarian Cancer

Photos: Courtesy of Renee Parnteau

When world champion gymnast turned wellness advocate Shannon Miller was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011, she didn’t hesitate to share her story with the world. In a Q&A, the seven-time Olympic medalist doesn’t hold back in describing her experience, hoping it will empower others to prioritize their health.

How did your experience as a competitive athlete help you in your battle against ovarian cancer? 

After being diagnosed, I found myself reverting to many of those lessons learned through sport. I began to focus on setting goals, working with my team, and keeping a positive attitude. Not that any of those were necessarily easy. My goals were not Olympic sized goals. On some of the most difficult days during chemotherapy my goal was to get up and dressed then walk around the dining room table, twice. That was my win. I came back to the idea of teamwork during the first week of chemo. I think I had slipped into thinking that I had to do this on my own. I didn’t want to burden anyone else. 

But after landing back in the hospital at the end of the first week, unable to keep down food or water, I realized not only was I not in this alone but there was so many more on my team than just the medical. I had a terrific medical team, but it was also family, friends, neighbors all pitching in to help out. I learned the hard way that not only could I accept help when offered but also ask for help when needed. It took a lot for me to realize that it was okay to lean on my team. 

As for attitude, I am very upfront that I wasn’t cheery 24/7. Having a positive attitude certainly isn’t the easiest things when facing some challenges in life. There were times I broke down and tears were shed. But I tried to focus on the next forward step. If I could wake up and find something good to focus on that day, then it was a great start. It would help bring me through some of the more difficult moments. 

You’ve spoken about your decision to freeze eggs when going through treatment. What led you to that decision, and what would your advice be for someone struggling with making that decision? 

We had only enough time to try once to freeze eggs prior to starting chemotherapy. Because they had removed my left ovary and we weren’t sure how much damage treatment would do to my remaining ovary, my physician felt that was the best course of action to have an option for more children later. It’s not an easy process but it did allow us to feel we were keeping the most options on the table. We felt like we were doing everything we could to allow for the possibility of more children and I could focus solely on getting through treatment. 

You have stated that not skipping your yearly checkup likely saved your life. What are some ways to encourage women to maintain their yearly appointments, even when they feel they are too busy? 

My focus for nearly two decades has been to use my platform to help women make their health a priority. I’m passionate about health and fitness because I know first-hand how difficult it is to make time for ourselves. We tend to take care of everyone and everything else first and often feel guilty if we turn that focus on ourselves. With check-ups, in particular, it’s so important to create that baseline and line of communication with physicians you trust. Early detection of any issue gives you more options. In my case, it saved my life. 

What kind of work have you done to advance the conversation surrounding ovarian cancer?

After my diagnosis I was going through so many emotions. The ability to use my story to give others hope or spread the importance of early detection, awareness of symptoms, research and survivorship was both cathartic and an unforeseen blessing. I had gained so much hope and knowledge from other survivors that reached out to me, that I wanted to be a part of continuing that effort. Whether it’s traveling the country speaking, working with non-profits or partnering with organizations that are devoted to women’s health, it’s an amazing thing to wake up each day and have the opportunity to help. 

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