From Olympic Gold to Ovarian Cancer: Our Interview with Former US Gymnast Shannon Miller logo

With all the excitement surrounding this summer’s London 2012 Olympic games, MCA had the rare opportunity to interview America’s most decorated U.S. gymnast and ovarian cancer survivor, Shannon Miller, to ask her about the parallels between her battle for the Gold in ’96 and the battle for her life a few years later.

As the leader of the “Magnificent Seven” ‘96 gold medal-winning Olympic Women’s Gymnastic team, Shannon Miller is no stranger to victory. Recently in January of 2011, Ms. Miller had to put her winning attitude forward again when she was diagnosed with a malignant germ cell tumor, a form of ovarian cancer. In our interview, Ms. Miller speaks about how being an champion gymnast helped her go for the gold against her biggest competition yet– cancer.

Becoming the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history obviously took years of hard training and preparation. Can you think of anything that could have prepared you for a cancer diagnosis?

Olympic training was probably the best preparation for cancer. Not only was the physical aspect important (remembering to keep my body moving) but the mental impact was critical. I tried hard to maintain a positive outlook and control those things that I could while letting the rest go. And above all, I had to remember that when I get knocked down I have to just get…back….up.

Your son was only 15 months old when you were going through treatment. How did he affect your treatment and just the everyday process of having cancer?

There was the logistical part that was difficult. I wasn’t allowed to lift Rocco for 8 weeks after my surgery. That’s very difficult when he was not yet walking and still taking three naps a day. Once I started chemo it was like he understood that mommy needed him. He was so sweet and just kept the laughter going. That’s what I really needed.

In an interview with People magazine you mentioned that one of your biggest fears about your prognosis was how your son, Rocco, might react to “Mommy being bald.” Many mothers who are diagnosed with cancer mention their first fears being about their family and how their loved ones will react and/or deal with their illness. What advice can you give mothers, of small children especially, going through similar situations as yours and with similar worries about their family members?

I worried that he would be scared of me. As a new mother that’s a pretty terrifying thought. I also worried about long term issues. He was very young but also very perceptive as most children are. We always try to keep things upbeat and positive but we also didn’t shy away from simply telling him mommy isn’t feeling well and she’s going to lie down for a bit. When I had treatment at home, he understood that what I was doing was helping me to get better. I didn’t think he’d remember much but recently he ask[ed] for a doctor’s kit and goes around taking everyone’s blood pressure – Bunny has the best blood pressure of us all!

How will you explain cancer and your personal journey with it to your son?

I won’t any time soon. He doesn’t need to understand it at this point and my treatment is over. All he needs to know is that mommy loves him.

An athlete for the majority of your life and an active person post-retirement from gymnastics, how did you cope with the days when treatment stifled your activity and you really just couldn’t do anything?

I’m not good with limits and surgery and chemo certainly limit you. I created goals for each day and each week to help keeping me going. Some days my goal was simply to get up and get dressed. Other days I could take a 10 minute walk. I was so proud of myself the first time I took the stairs to my doctor’s office for one of my treatments. Three floors, very slow, very winded, but I made it!!

Who was your absolute biggest support throughout your entire journey with ovarian cancer?

God is at the top of my list, followed closely by my husband. Here is a man that dealt with his wife and his father both going through a cancer diagnosis at the same time. In fact we had back to back surgery days! John took care of everything, food, laundry, running home to lift Rocco into the crib when I couldn’t. He kept everyone in the family going with humor. All of this while continuing to run his company. I think he had a much rougher year than I did.

Are there any beauty secrets you can share for women going through cancer treatment?

Try scarves, sunglasses and big earrings. Also, you can look online at my website under the My Journey blog. We have some great how to videos on wearing makeup during chemo or radiation when your skin is very sensitive and you might not have eyelashes or eye brows. Adding a little color to your cheeks goes a long way!

You have said that Robin Roberts is a “real beacon of hope to many people.” What do you think it takes to be a beacon of hope? How do you hope your story inspires others?

I hope that by being so public about my diagnosis, I encourage other women to get their regular exams and screening and to always listen to their body. My mission is to help women make their health a priority.

You had no symptoms preceding your diagnosis. What would you tell a young girl, or any female for that matter, who did not see the necessity in regular medical check ups and screenings?

Get your annual exams and screenings. Know your family’s medical history. Even if you feel great, this is a good time to create a baseline with your physician so that if something seems off you’ll both know. In my case, I had no symptoms at all. I almost skipped my exam. I went anyway and they found a baseball sized tumor – I had no idea!! Get your exams on time, every time.

You were given a clean bill of health in September 2011. Almost a year later now, what would you consider your “new normal?” How did cancer force you to adjust your usual life and find a new way of life?

My new normal is understanding balance a little better. I make time for rest as much as possible. But I also want to live life to the fullest. I continue to do what I love and have made it a point to spend more time with the people I love. I’m happier and more appreciative than I have ever been in my life. I thank God every day for life.

For more from Shannon Miller, visit her website, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, for health and fitness tips for women, to download her ebook “Competing with Cancer”, and updates on what you can expect from Ms. Miller next!