Shannon Lee Miller Falconetti, is an American former artistic gymnast and cancer survivor, whose survival story shows the beauty of focus and positive mindset. The seven-time Olympic medalist stated that lessons she learned while training for gymnastics competitions helped her endure the rigors of treatment for ovarian cancer. “A huge part of my success as an athlete was that I had the mental game. To get through the toughest moments of treatment I relied on goal setting and keeping that positive mentality.”
Shannon Miller was thirty-three (33) years old when she found out she had ovarian cancer. It was in the fall of 2010 and she had almost skipped her regular women’s health exam. She was a nursing mother to a year old Rocco and had recently founded her company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle: Health and Fitness for Women, and just felt too busy with life and work to go for a checkup. But just as she was calling to cancel the appointment, she had a change of heart.
“In her thought, she was working in the health field interviewing physicians for her weekly radio show talking about early detection, and she thought that she is not setting a good example by skipping her checkups.” So she kept her appointment; a decision that helped her doctor to detect cancer at an early stage.
While conducting a routine pelvic checkup, her doctor found a baseball-sized mass on her ovary that turned out to be an ovarian germ cell tumor, a rare form of ovarian cancer. Shannon Miller later realized she had actually had signs of ovarian cancer; stomach aches, bloating, and weight loss. But because these are also often signs of much less serious problems, she did not think to report them to her doctor.
She had surgery to remove the tumor and then nine (9) weeks of aggressive chemotherapy to give her the best chance of keeping cancer from coming back. The cancer was at the second stage- it was caught before it had spread to other parts of her body.
Challenge of ever having children again
Before her surgery, her doctor did not know what he was going to find. He had an honest conversation with Miller and her husband about whether they wanted to be able to have another child someday. He asked them about how aggressive he should be about removing the mass and preserving her fertility. “We (the couple) knew the Doctor had to be as aggressive as possible. “We needed to do everything we could to make sure our son had a mom.”
But they also talked to the doctor about all their options. After the surgery which removed one ovary and one fallopian tube, they decided to save eggs before she started chemotherapy.
“I did not want to have any regrets. If you bring an umbrella, it will not rain – that was how she thought about it.” “We decided we will take advantage of every opportunity available; then if we needed to have a plan B, we were prepared.”
A hard walk
Treatment was tough, both physically and emotionally. Miller’s doctor called it the “hit ‘them hard ‘and fast” approach. She would have chemotherapy five (5) days a week for nine (9) weeks, starting about a month after her surgery. She told herself, “I can do anything for nine (9) weeks.”
But by the end of the first week, she had such severe nausea and vomiting, she was unable to keep even water down and was forced to check into the hospital to receive IV fluids. By week two, Miller’s hair fell out and she experienced severe fatigue and neuropathy, a nerve pain, in her hands.
“Her next true moment was with herself and God in that room thinking, ‘How do I do this?’” according to her. “She kept coming back to the realization that she does not have to do this alone. She had faith, and she had her team around her. She reminded herself that she was not the only one going through this.”
Shannon Miller finished her chemo on May 2, 2011. “She thought she was going to have all her energy back, and that her hair would grow back. She expected to feel better,” stated Miller. “But the neuropathy her my hands was so bad, she could not open a bottle of water. She felt like each limb weighed a thousand pounds and she could barely move herself to get out of bed. When she was in Olympic training 7 days a week, she never felt this kind of fatigue.”
She got help from another cancer survivor, her mother, who helped her understand she would feel better – but it would take time.
Shannon is a survivor
She uses whatever voice she had from her Olympic career to encourage women to keep medical appointments, get more sleep, eat right, get and stay fit, and recognize the signs and symptoms of cancer.
Shannon Miller stated that it took about a year before she felt like herself again. She was still extra tired and taking naps right up until the 2012 Summer Olympics in London where she covered gymnastics for the media. Shortly after she returned home from London, she found out she was pregnant with her daughter Sterling who is now three (3) years old.
Today, Miller travels the country telling her cancer story and encouraging women to take care of themselves, “I use whatever voice I have from my Olympic career to encourage women to keep medical appointments, get more sleep, eat right, get and stay fit, and recognize the signs and symptoms of cancer.”
In June 2014, in honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, Shannon Miller spoke at a cancer survivors’ reunion sponsored by the American Cancer Society and Extended Stay America hotels, which donates hotel reservations to cancer patients whose best option for cancer treatment is away from home. “Extended Stay America does so much for those going through a cancer diagnosis. There is so much involved beyond treatment for patients and caregivers.” She stated that she enjoys the opportunity to speak to survivors. We are all at a different place in our journey, but we can learn something from every story. Learning more and being around other survivors or reading about them is important because it gives you hope. The more we can do to create awareness the better, so we are catching cancer earlier when there are more options for treatment.”
According to her, “The biggest lesson she learned was how much she needed to appreciate every day.” “No matter where you are in your journey, you can take that day and do your best with it. She used to fly through life. She did not take time to savor it. She was always a go, go, goes, person. Now she understands the importance of really taking time to appreciate every moment.”
Women can beat this deadly disease by taking note of lifestyles or habits that trigger cancer. Health experts always stress the point that one should live healthily by simply doing the basics of healthy living which will go a long way in avoiding cancer.
By Charles Emekpo