Regaining Her Balance
Gymnast Shannon Miller's focus and agility helped her capture seven Olympic medals before she was 20. But the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history struggled to overcome the shock of her ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment.
By Kevin Begos
Photo by Betsy Hansen
Stay focused. Set goals. And always keep faith. These principles guided 19-year-old gymnast Shannon Miller to gold in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The young athlete’s tenacity helped the U.S. women’s gymnastics squad, famously known as the Magnificent Seven, to outmaneuver the Russian contingent, capturing the first team gold medal for the United States. Miller also won her first individual gold medal for her balance beam routine, bringing her total career Olympic medal count to seven.
But just as one small misstep or a slight over-rotation can dash an Olympic dream, Miller’s life took an unexpected twist in 2011 when, at age 33, she was diagnosed with stage IA mixed germ cell ovarian cancer. The news of the rare cancer brought fear and the agonizing thought that she might not be there for her young son and husband. She felt powerless and out of control.
With gymnastics, says Miller, “I knew everything that my body was doing at all times.” Yet, 11 years after she retired from competition, a baseball-sized tumor had grown inside of her—and Miller hadn’t even been aware of it. “Growing up in sport, I was always that kid that if I did something wrong, [I’d say], ‘OK, tell me why I did it wrong, tell me why I fell. I’ll fix it,’ ” she says. “But they couldn’t tell me why I had this very rare tumor.”
Beyond the Olympics
Miller admits that she likes to be in control of her surroundings, which may account for her success in competition. The most decorated U.S. gymnast of all time—with seven Olympic medals and nine world championship medals— Miller once described herself as neither the most talented nor the strongest athlete. But she worked hard, set incremental goals and got back on her feet whenever she fell.
Miller initially retired from gymnastics after the 1996 Olympics, but she attempted a comeback in 2000, only to retire again later that year. With competition behind her, she searched for a new focus. Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Houston in 2003 and graduated from Boston College Law School in 2007.
That same year, Miller married John Falconetti, the president of a commercial printing company in Jacksonville, Fla. The couple had a baby boy, Rocco, in 2009. As a new mom who was passionate about promoting fitness, Miller launched her business, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, in 2010. The company aims “to help women make their health a priority,” through website content, products and partnerships with companies, and Miller’s speaking engagements and weekly radio show.
But little did Miller know she would soon have to put her own health front and center. In December 2010, Miller’s gynecologist felt a growth on her left ovary during a routine gynecology exam. At first, her doctor told her not to worry. But he also ordered blood tests and an ultrasound, and referred Miller to gynecologic oncologist Stephen Buckley of Southeast Gynecologic Oncology Associates in Jacksonville.
A Startling Discovery
Buckley performed a second ultrasound and was concerned about the size of the 7-centimeter mass. Blood tests also revealed that Miller had elevated alpha fetoprotein levels, which can be indicative of a germ cell tumor, Buckley says.
He told Miller she would need to have surgery to remove the mass—and they wouldn’t learn if the tumor was benign or malignant until after the operation.
During surgery, Buckley noted that the mass appeared isolated to her left ovary and had obvious characteristics of malignancy. He removed Miller’s left ovary and fallopian tube during the surgery at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville. He also took tissue samples from nearby lymph nodes and organs, a standard procedure in ovarian cancer staging surgery. Pathology reports indicated a stage IA mixed germ cell tumor. Buckley told Miller that a round of intensive chemotherapy was the best long-term protection against recurrence. There was a small chance that chemotherapy could damage her remaining ovary, however.
Miller’s husband recalled his wife’s reaction: “She said, ‘I want to do everything that I possibly can to make sure I’m with the family I have today. I want to get as aggressive as I can now, for them as much as for me.” After deciding to go ahead with the chemotherapy, Miller discussed fertility preservation with her health care team and had her eggs harvested and frozen.