fbpx Olympic Gymnast Shannon Miller on Her Journey With Ovarian Cancer
Shannon Miller competes on the balance beam with red and gold ribbons around her.
Shannon Miller competes on the balance beam with red and gold ribbons around her.

Olympic Gymnast Shannon Miller on Her Journey With Ovarian Cancer

In this exclusive Q&A, the gold medalist discusses the importance of community.
Alisa Williams
Written by

Alisa Williams

The world sat riveted during the 1996 Olympic Games as Shannon Miller and her teammates, nicknamed "the Magnificent Seven," made history by winning the first-ever Olympic gold medal for the U.S. women's gymnastics team. During those games, Miller also won gold on the balance beam, Team USA's first individual women's gymnastics Olympic gold since 1984.

She earned seven Olympic medals during her career and is tied with Simone Biles as the most decorated U.S. female gymnast in Olympics history.

But Miller's toughest challenge was still to come.

In 2011, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the most deadly of the gynecological cancers. In this exclusive interview with Giddy for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Miller discusses her ovarian cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, and what it's like to be cancer-free for more than a decade.

She also talks about her partnership with Our Way Forward, an ovarian cancer resource and story-sharing platform that hopes to encourage "women living with ovarian cancer, their loved ones and healthcare providers to rethink how they talk about ovarian cancer and ways to work together to navigate the physical and emotional challenges that the disease brings," according to its mission statement.

Lastly, Miller describes the importance of being surrounded by a community of support throughout the entirety of the journey, including post-treatment, when survivors can often feel the most alone.

Tell us how you found out you had ovarian cancer.

Miller: My cancer journey began with a doctor's visit that I almost canceled.

I was already involved with women's health and advocating about the importance of focusing on our personal health, whether it's fitness, nutrition, sleep or getting to our regular doctor's appointments. So, I admit, wanting to "walk the walk" played a part in getting me to that appointment; one that saved my life.

My doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on my left ovary which snowballed into weeks of tests and scans. By January 2011, I was waking up from surgery to find out it was a rare form of ovarian cancer. The good news was that they caught it early. However, it was a higher-grade malignancy than they initially thought, and I then went through an aggressive chemotherapy regimen which would give me the best chance of nonrecurrence.

How did you juggle being a parent to a toddler with the ups and downs of recovery?

Post-surgery was the first phase of recovery. It was an invasive surgery which required weeks of recovery. During that time, I was also trying to get as healthy as I could in preparation for chemotherapy.

It's important to remember that everyone's chemo experience is different and there are a variety of regimens. For me, I can easily say that it's the toughest thing I have ever had to do physically, mentally and emotionally.

Physically, I was dealing with the nausea, fatigue and neuropathy. Those things can make day-to-day activities nearly impossible. Most of us think of fatigue as "just being tired." I explain the fatigue as that moment when I would lie in bed feeling like each of my limbs weighed 1,000 pounds, trying to will myself to move my right leg over six inches so it would fall off the side of the bed, and I would be able to use that momentum to sit up. It seems crazy now, but at the time, that was my thought process on many days.

Trying to keep up with our son, who was around 18 months old at the height of chemo, was a challenge. However, the emotion of often being too exhausted or nauseous to truly engage with him was the toughest. I wanted to be full of energy for him, to give him my all and I just couldn't. I had to really take to heart this idea that focusing on my health was the best thing I could do for him. If I needed an extra nap, that was OK. If I wasn't super-chipper, that was OK. He didn't care if I had no hair or that I didn't dance around the living room. He just needed me to be there.

What were some of the most unexpected parts of your cancer journey?

There were some tough surprises throughout the journey; also, some wonderful ones. Overall, it was an emotional roller coaster.

My doctor had been upfront that I would lose my hair on this treatment, so I felt I was prepared. But I don't know if you can ever truly be prepared for that. I avoided thinking about it too much. It was simply something that was going to happen, and I would handle it. It was all very matter of fact in my mind until it actually began falling out. Not only was my head tender and cold, but I think there was so much emotion that had been balled up and stowed away inside me. I had been in competitive mode. Then the moment I saw my head shaved, the dam broke, the emotions came out and it was all suddenly very real.

However, I'm so thankful for so many that stepped up to help or reach out and share their stories or lend a helping hand. While I may not have expected some of the side effects, like how long it would take to have my energy back or feel clear-headed or keep down a meal, many of the unexpected moments were truly blessings.

I met, and continue to meet, wonderful people that do amazing work. I went from being a very shy, private person to talking about my ovaries! I was reminded of the importance of enjoying each moment to the fullest. Overall, I feel blessed; blessed to be here and blessed to play some small part in helping others make their health a priority.

You've been cancer-free for more than 10 years. What are the lessons from that time in your life that carried you through then and which you still lean on today?

I cannot believe it's been over 10 years. I am so grateful to so many who helped me get to this point. During my treatment, I relied on those lessons learned through sport: goal setting, teamwork, positive mental attitude and resiliency. They really are applicable to all areas of our lives.

Setting goals wasn't about gold medals, it was about getting through each step of the process or each week, even each day. During some of the toughest days of chemo, my goal might be to get dressed and walk twice around the dining room table or maybe do 10 minutes of gentle yoga. Teamwork was essential and understanding that not only was I surrounded by this incredible team of physicians, nurses, friends and family, but I was part of that team.

So each day, I focused on how I could take that next forward step. There are so many great lessons to lean on. I think that's what continues to inspire me to use my voice, gained through sport, to hopefully inspire others to keep up the good fight.

We don't have to be Olympic champions to utilize those valuable lessons.

Illustration by Jaelen Brock

Tell us about your work as an advocate for Our Way Forward by GSK and the importance of that platform.

I was very shy growing up. I never imagined I would go around talking about my ovaries! However, I hope that by sharing my story, others will see that cancer is something that can affect us all, gold medal or not.

We all have to be our own best health advocates and really listen to our bodies. I also hope to share the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and the importance of research and programs like Our Way Forward that bring together a woman, her care partners and healthcare providers with others that are dealing with the physical and psychological challenges that come with this diagnosis. We need to know that we are not alone.

Our Way Forward is a call to action for patients, their loved ones and healthcare providers to rethink how we talk about advanced ovarian cancer and ways to partner together to navigate the physical and emotional challenges that the disease brings to everyday life.

Not only is it essential that we are able to have open, honest conversations about this disease and how it affects us, but we have to include post-treatment, which is often when you feel the most alone. To have a community surrounding you is incredible.

What advice would you give to someone who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer?

Everyone is at a different stage in their journey. However, there are things that unite us. Don't hesitate to reach out for help. That is sometimes the most difficult part. I never wanted to be a burden or complain. But I realized, as a patient and as the daughter of a survivor, people truly wanted to help. Let them.

There is strength in knowing you don't have to do this alone. Know that you are not alone.

What are some of the ways friends and family can best support a loved one through their treatment and recovery?

There are so many different ways to support a loved one or friend during treatment or recovery. The first step is often just letting them know you are there and available. Helping can be a kind word on a challenging day, bringing a meal over for the family or even taking care of the kids for an afternoon. I've heard so many great ideas over the years, like going over to help clean or organize, going on regular walks, watching a movie, sitting with them at chemo or simply doing something, anything, that takes their mind off of cancer.

Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

One thing that often gets overlooked is what happens when treatment is finished. There is so much focus on the moment of diagnosis and throughout treatment. And that is crucial. We need to know that we are not alone. However, we also need to maintain that support after treatment has ended, because the journey is ongoing.

When treatment ends, it's like overnight you have lost your team. There are no longer people constantly checking up on you, not as many doctors, nurses or caregivers making sure you're OK. It's naturally that moment when your friends and family take that much-needed sigh of relief. It's a very natural thing for people around you to hear the ring of that bell and want to move forward. As patients, we do, too.

But it doesn't work that way. I felt like I was suddenly supposed to be back to 100 percent mom, 100 percent at my job, 100 percent energy, and I wasn't 100 percent anything. I was still fatigued, still nauseous, still dealing with all the issues I had been during chemo. And I had this added weight of feeling like everyone expected me to be back to normal.

I hope that by sharing my story, others will see that cancer is something that can affect us all, gold medal or not.

I recall that last day of treatment. Somehow, I had built it up in my head that I would immediately start feeling better, I would be back to my old self. And when that didn't happen, it was like just another hit to my mind, body and soul.

Without ongoing support, you can feel like you're back on that island all alone again. Except now you know that everyone's been helping you all of this time, so you can feel even more guilty about still needing help.

That transition from treatment back to what many call "the new normal" is a critical time. I wish that I had something like Our Way Forward to help me during treatment and especially during the transition post-treatment.

I was lucky I had my mom. She is also a survivor and could share with me some wisdom on the post-treatment phase, most of which came down to "Give it time. Don't try to rush it. And let's just keep talking in the meantime." And she was right. We can't rush it. However, we can continue to reach out to our team for support.