Former Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller leaps into a new role: cancer survivor

Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller recently completed a nine-week round of chemotherapy for a rare, aggressive type of cancer. She is celebrating good news by visiting her family in Oklahoma and sharing her experience with women.
BY SONYA COLBERG scolberg@opubco.com Published: June 12, 2011

— Olympic medalist and hometown girl Shannon Miller is facing a competitor so fierce that she can barely say the word.

With new test results in hand, it appears the 34-year-old gymnast is winning the battle, though victory could have easily gone to her opponent.

Miller recalls that she almost postponed her yearly exam for a year because she was so busy. The gold medalist figured she had remained in good health in the decade and a half since hanging up her gymnastics leotard. She felt fit but decided to rearrange her schedule to work in the exam.

So she was shocked when her doctor announced she had a cyst on her ovary.

More tests followed.

“Then you hear the word ‘mass.' And you hear the word ... ”

She pauses. Her eyes glisten and she laughs before finishing the sentence: “cancer.”

“It doesn't care how many gold medals you have,” Miller said.

America's most-decorated gymnast had worked through medical issues during her competitive years. Tendinitis, shin splints, backaches, knee injuries, even a broken elbow just before the Olympics didn't slow her down. But suddenly she faced a frightening surgery with an unknown, potentially life-changing outcome.

“We didn't know if they were going to have to do a complete hysterectomy and I would never be able to have children again, or if it had spread, or if it had just been benign and no problem,” she said.

She was diagnosed in January with germ cell malignancy, a rare, aggressive cancer that primarily affects teen girls and young women.

Surgeons removed a tumor the size of a baseball from her left ovary, an organ the size of a peanut.

But soon Miller and her husband, John Falconetti, learned that while the tumor was gone, the danger was not.

She was strongly advised to get chemotherapy.

“There's a goal that's been set. If it means that this gives me a better chance of being here for my son, then OK let's do it,” Miller told the doctor.

Chemotherapy begins

Miller turned toward improving women's health after leaving behind her competitive years in which she earned seven Olympic medals and nine world championship medals. With nine weeks of chemotherapy ahead, she decided to share her experience with fans on her women's health and fitness radio show and website, Shannon Miller Lifestyle.

“I wanted to feel like I was doing something for others, not just getting through,” she said.

Suddenly, Miller's routine revolved around a debilitating chemo schedule that meant a good workout for her was only the occasional five- or 10-minute walk. The once strong, bold gymnast called it a major victory the day she was able to walk Rocco, now 19 months old, to the park near their Jacksonville, Fla., home to feed the ducks.

Fifteen days into chemo, she clung to hope that she'd be in the minority of patients who would not lose their hair.

But instead of fans watching in awe as the Olympic legend slapped chalk on her hands before she jumped on the bars, they watched in awe on day 16 as she had her head shaved during a “wig party” with her husband and close friends.

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