How Gymnast Shannon Miller Fought Ovarian Cancer

Why the gymnastics star triumphed over the deadly disease

Shannon Miller
Shannon Miller. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

After years of training for an Olympic gold medal, gymnast Shannon Miller had yet to train for her toughest battle -- ovarian cancer. The public watched Miller's graceful mastery on the balance beam and other gymnastics events at the 1996 Olympic games with awe. Many followed her career after the Olympics and read about her pursuit of a law degree, marriage and new baby. So, fans were devastated when Miller announced her ovarian cancer diagnosis in early 2011.

How Shannon Miller Was Diagnosed With Cancer

A routine health screening in December 2010 revealed a baseball sized cyst in Miller's ovary. When an ovarian cyst is discovered, further examination is required to determine if the mass is benign or malignant. To accurately diagnosis a woman with an ovarian mass, several medical tests are done, including imaging tests such as an ultrasound, biopsies and blood tests. Although which tests Miller had are unknown, she likely had a combination of tests that revealed an ovarian germ cell tumor.

It is important to note that Miller's cancer was discovered during a routine gynecological exam, not a screening for ovarian cancer. According to published reports, it was discovered during a Pap smear. Currently, there is no recommended ovarian screening test for women. Like most women with ovarian cancer, Shannon didn't experience any symptoms of the disease.

Ovarian cancer is often called the "silent killer" because of the absence of any noticeable symptoms.

The asymptomatic nature of the disease is often why most women are diagnosed when the disease in its advanced stages, when treatment options are limited and less effective. Researchers believe they have identified early symptoms of ovarian cancer, but the symptoms are vague and often related to more common, less serious conditions and diseases.

 

Ovarian Cancer Treatment 

Miller underwent surgery to remove the tumor and the ovary. After surgery, Miller endured nine weeks of chemotherapy. Like other cancer patients, Shannon experienced chemotherapy-induced hair loss, a side effect that she worried would scare her then 15 month old son, Rocco. Instead of waiting for the hair to fall out on its own, Miller took the plunge and had it shaved. In her chemo journal, published on CNN.com, Shannon spoke candidly about her hair loss and how she thought it might affect her son.

"What would he think of my bald head?" Miller wondered. "While talking with a friend about my fear, she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Shannon, if you’re not comfortable with how you look, Rocco certainly won’t be.' She is so wise. It became crystal clear that I needed to get myself in gear. ... I wore my hat or wig around Rocco for the next couple days while I worked on my own comfort level."

Miller's Life Today

Today, Miller is cancer-free and resides in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Shannon Miller Foundation maintains the website, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, which aims to promote women's health and cancer awareness. On the website, Miller's e-book about her diagnosis with ovarian cancer and the treatment she underwent for the disease is available for free download. 

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