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Olympic Gold Medalist Shannon Miller Shares Her Ovarian Cancer Journey

Photo: Courtesy of Shannon Miller

Seven-Time Olympic Medalist Shannon Miller sat down with Mediaplanet to talk about her battle with ovarian cancer and how it changed her life forever.

What was it like when you first received your diagnosis?

I think every cancer journey is different, but it’s always scary. There are so many questions, so few answers and, for me, one of the most trying times was before I even received the diagnosis. A baseball-sized cyst was discovered on my left ovary during a routine exam. That snowballed into any tests that were available at the time. I was warned by my physician not to do anything that might twist or rupture the cyst, so I walked around like a zombie afraid to move. I kept hearing people tell me that “it would be okay” or “it’s probably nothing”. I know they were trying to calm my fears but I was anxious to just understand what we were dealing with. Our son had just turned a year old and I kept thinking I needed to get ahead of this. My son needed his mother.

My gynecologist consulted with a gynecologic oncologist almost immediately, and after two ultrasounds he knew that this wasn’t going away on its own.  I was scheduled for surgery immediately and it wasn’t until I woke up in the hospital that I learned it was a rare form of ovarian cancer. I had very mixed emotions but I can recall going from kind of a victim mentality where I was letting everything happen to me to reverting back to that competitive mentality I knew through sport. I was ready to fight. I was set up for an aggressive chemotherapy regimen and I began to look at chemo as a tool I could use to fight back.

Did you experience any defining symptoms?

If you asked me at the time I would have said “No”. In fact, in several interviews, I did. It wasn’t until my husband happened to be with me one day when someone asked that question that he reminded me that I had been complaining of severe stomach aches in the weeks prior. I had the double whammy of 1) not knowing what the symptoms were for ovarian cancer and 2) not paying enough attention to my own body. When I learned more about the symptoms I realized I had been completely discounting them as regular monthly female issues. My symptoms were stomach pain, bloating, and sudden loss of weight. My body was going through changes after having our son, I had just stopped nursing and was running ragged with work and motherhood so it was easy to explain away all of these symptoms. In fact, when I saw my doctor the morning he found the cyst, I had told him I as feeling fine.

What made you want to become a voice for ovarian cancer?

I think in some ways it became cathartic for me. It was a way to talk about my cancer in a way that was less about me and more about what we could do with stories like mine. I remember lying in my hospital bed after being sent back during the first week of chemo because I couldn’t keep down food or water. I had tried nine or ten nausea medications and nothing helped. And I just thought “I can’t do this…I just don’t think I can do this”. But I kept coming back to my faith and the knowledge that I wasn’t in this alone. I began to think about moving forward which is always so difficult to do when you’re in the thick of things. And as a very shy child I can tell you that I never imagined I would go around talking about my ovaries! But I kept coming back to the idea that my focus had been on women’s health for years and this was an opportunity to help other women learn about the symptoms and focus on their own personal health. I wanted to use my story to help others make their health a priority.

How did you maintain such a positive outlook/attitude?

I try very hard to be positive. I believe positive things happen to positive people. And I believe that having a positive attitude is a choice we get to make, and own, each and every day. It’s also important to remember that it’s not going to be 24/7. You are going to have moments you just want to cry or be upset. That’s okay. It’s normal and it’s sometimes needed. But once you’re finished, you have to get back up and keep moving forward.

My faith helps me tremendously and it always has. I also think surrounding yourself with others that have a positive attitude and outlook is key. If you have a negative influence it’s easy to start sliding down that path. You want to have a team surrounding you and supporting you that can give you moments of humor, silver linings and positive energy.

Did your gymnastics training play a role in your battle in any way?

My background in gymnastics played a significant part in my cancer journey. I relied on lessons I had learned through sport almost every day. Lessons of positive attitude, goal setting, the importance of team work, perseverance and visualization among many others. Each day was a struggle. A struggle against fear and doubt, a struggle against nausea, neuropathy and fatigue, a struggle to find my old self when my reflection said otherwise with no hair, no eyelashes or eyebrows and skin as pale as could be. But I learned through sport that the struggle is often what brings out our true character. We find out that we are much stronger than we ever imagined we could be.

What advice would you give to your pre-cancer self?

Pay more attention to your body. As a gymnast, I was so in tune with my body. I understood whether an injury was something I could work through or needed more attention. My parents made sure I went to doctor’s appointments. As young adults, I think we feel invincible. We sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. And as women, we are often taking care of everyone else. We put our health at the bottom of the to-do list.

I had a passion for women’s health and wellness for these very reasons and had even launched my company to focus on helping women make their health a priorty. And yet, I was so busy reminding women not to skip their exams that I almost did that exact thing! In fact, I was waiting on hold on the phone to cancel and reschedule my appointment when I felt the guilt of not walking the walk. So instead of canceling I took the first available appointment. It happened to be that very morning and that was the fifteen-minute exam that saved my life. We have to listen to our bodies and remember that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t be here for all of those that depend on us.

What lessons did you take away from your experience?

The lessons I take with me are really those same lessons I learned through gymnastics. This journey brought me back to those life lessons that are important for all of us no matter what our challenge. It helped me understand that those lessons don’t just apply to gymnastics, they apply to every aspect of my life.

A HELPING HAND: An early diagnosis enabled Shannon with the ability to get a jump on her condition, something she sees as an opportunity to help other women who weren’t afforded the same luxary.

Now that you are cancer-free, how has your life changed?

 I understand how fortunate I am that my cancer was caught early. I feel like I have been given an opportunity to help others in a way that I never imagined possible. My focus remains on my family and my devotion to helping women make their health a priority. The biggest change is in my ability to slow down at times. I have always been a person focused on the next goal, the next achievement. I won five Olympic medals in 1992 and was in the gym three days later trying to learn new skills. I never stopped to enjoy the success. Even after two gold medals in 1996, I refocused quickly to my undergraduate degrees and figuring out life after gymnastics.

The downside of moving forward so quickly is that you don’t celebrate the hard work. I just kind of checked it off my list and was on to my next endeavor. Cancer slowed me down.

It made me stop and appreciate each and every day for the amazing fact that I was alive. So when I am trying to get the kids to school and all they want to do is stop and look at bugs…we stop and look at bugs. We may have to get up a few minutes earlier but that’s okay. I want that time. I have slowed down to enjoy friendships and the incredible opportunities I have been given. I have always been grateful but now I take the time to soak it all in.

My cancer struggle also allowed me to become more secure in myself. I speak up instead of shying away, I don’t have time for Negative Nellies in my life and it’s difficult to be embarrassed by much after the world has seen you with your wig on crooked.

While I am still driven to accomplish the next goal, I am more aware of enjoying myself and celebrating life along the way.

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