Former Olympic Gymnast Shannon Miller Squares Off Against Ovarian Cancer
by Laura Shipp
In 1996, a petite, 19-year-old Shannon Miller wowed the country as she led the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team – coined the Magnificent Seven – to a first-ever team gold medal. A victory that has yet to be repeated by the U.S. Women’s team. She then went on to achieve another first during the ’96 Games: becoming the first American to win Olympic gold on the balance beam.
All told, Shannon racked up nine World Championship medals (five of them gold) and seven Olympic medals during her gymnastics career. She holds the distinction of being the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in U.S. history. A testament to her strong will, intense determination, and extraordinary endurance.
These qualities would serve her well in facing her latest opponent, one more formidable than any lithe Romanian.
During an annual exam last December, doctors discovered a cyst on Shannon’s ovary. She was only 33 years old, in excellent shape, and had no symptoms, so she wasn’t too worried. However, after the mass was removed, tests showed that it was a malignant germ cell tumor – a form of ovarian cancer.
“Whether it’s over a cup of coffee or on Good Morning America, we need to share what we’re going through.”
In a recent interview with Coping® magazine, Shannon confides, “I’m very thankful that by the time I knew it was cancer, it was already out. Hearing the word ‘mass’ was terrifying enough.”
An Aggressive Approach
Though her cancer was found at an early stage, Shannon decided to undergo nine weeks of aggressive chemotherapy to fend off a possible recurrence.
“You’re always going to worry about a recurrence,” she says, “but I know that I’ve done everything that I could. I didn’t leave anything on the table.” Even though that meant enduring the unpleasant side effects associated with cytotoxic treatment.
“The nausea was what really did it for me,” Shannon says. “I had antinausea patches. I tried everything I could to figure out what worked. But you just have to get through it and do the best that you can.”
The other difficult part? Letting go of control. “I had to learn how to let others help me,” she admits before adding with a laugh, “I’m a little bit of a control freak. It was humbling for me to realize that I don’t have to be Superwoman and that it’s okay to rely on other people.”
Focus on Fitness
As a former Olympic athlete, Shannon has always been passionate about fitness. She even has a website, ShannonMillerLifestyle.com, dedicated to encouraging women to embrace healthy, active lives. Shannon credits her own active lifestyle with helping her get through treatment. She says, “I found out during my cancer experience that there is a lot more research now on fitness during chemotherapy and how effective it is in helping with the side effects, and even helping to prevent recurrence of certain cancers.”
Now, in addition to espousing the benefits of physical fitness, Shannon is on a mission to encourage women to speak out about gynecologic cancers. “One of the reasons I went so public with my diagnosis and my treatment,” she says, “is because we tend to think of women’s cancers as something we don’t want to talk about. But we do need to talk about it. We do need to share our stories. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee or on Good Morning America, we need to share what we’re going through so that other women don’t feel ashamed about going through the same stuff.”
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You can follow Shannon’s cancer journey on her personal blog, My Journey, at ShannonMillerLifestyle.com/my-journey. The site also includes videos and information from physicians, nurses, and other experts in the field.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.