How Being an Olympic Athlete Prepared Me to Fight Ovarian Cancer
Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 Olympics gold medal-winning Magnificent Seven gymnastics team, opens up about her treacherous battle with cancer and how being an athlete helped her fight it.
It was 2011 and I was having one of those days where even my coffee needed coffee. Between being stressed out about work and managing my one-year-old, I felt like there was no way I could make time for my annual ob-gyn check-up that was scheduled for later on in the week. Not to mention, I felt perfectly fine. I was a retired Olympic-gold winning gymnast, I worked out regularly, and I didn't feel that there was anything alarming going on with my health.
So, I called the doctor’s office hoping to re-schedule the appointment when I was put on hold. A sudden wave of guilt washed over me and when the receptionist returned to the phone, instead of pushing the appointment back, I asked if I could take the first available appointment. It happened to be that same morning, so hoping it would help me get ahead of my week, I hopped in my car and decided to get the check-up out of the way.
Getting Diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer
That day, my doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on one of my ovaries. I couldn’t believe it since I felt perfectly healthy. Looking back, I realized that I had experienced sudden weight-loss, but I attributed that to the fact that I had stopped breastfeeding my son. I’d also had some stomach aches and bloating, but nothing that felt too concerning.
Once the initial shock wore off, I needed to begin investigating. (Related: This Woman Found Out She Had Ovarian Cancer While Trying to Get Pregnant)
Over the next few weeks, I suddenly entered this whirlwind of tests and scans. While there is no specific test for ovarian cancer my doctor was trying to narrow down the issue. For me, it didn’t matter…I was simply scared. That first “wait and observe” portion of my journey was one of the most difficult (although it’s all challenging).
Here I had been a professional athlete for the better part of my life. I had quite literally used my body as a tool to become the best in the world at something, and yet I had no idea something like this was going on? How could I not know something was wrong? I suddenly felt this loss of control that made me feel utterly helpless and defeated
How the Lessons I Learned As an Athlete Helped In My Recovery
After about 4 weeks of tests, I was referred to an oncologist who looked at my ultrasound and immediately scheduled me for surgery to remove the tumor. I remember vividly heading into surgery with no idea what I would wake up to. Was it benign? Malignant? Would my son have a mother? It was almost too much to process.
I woke to mixed news. Yes, it was cancer, a rare form of ovarian cancer. The good news; they had caught it early.
Once I recovered from the surgery their was on to the next phase of my treatment plan. Chemotherapy. I think at that point something in mind changed. I suddenly went from my victim mentality to where everything was happening to me, to reverting to that competitive mindset I had known so well as an athlete. I now had a goal. I may not know exactly where I’d end up but I knew what I could wake up and focus on each day. At least I knew what was next, I told myself. (Related: Why No One Is Talking About Ovarian Cancer)
My morale was put to the test once again as chemotherapy began. My tumor was a higher malignancy than they originally thought. It was going to be a pretty aggressive form of chemotherapy. My oncologist called it the, 'hit it hard, hit it fast approach’
The treatment itself was administered five days the first week, then once per week over the next two for three cycles. In total, I underwent three rounds of treatment over the course of nine weeks. It was a truly grueling process by all accounts.
Each day I woke up giving myself a pep talk, reminding myself that I was strong enough to get through this. It’s that locker room pep talk mentality. My body is capable of great things” “You can do this” “You have to do this”. There was a point in my life where I was working out 30-40 hours a week, training to represent my country at the Olympic Games. But even then, I didn’t feel ready for the challenge that was chemo. I got through that first week of treatment, and it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. (Related: This 2-Year-Old Was Diagnosed with a Rare Form of Ovarian Cancer)
I couldn’t keep down food or water. I had no energy. Soon, due to the neuropathy in my hands, I couldn’t even open a bottle of water by myself. Going from being on the uneven bars for the better part of my life, to struggling to twist off a cap, had a huge impact on me mentally and forced me to grasp the reality of my situation.
I was constantly checking my mentality. I reverted back to a lot of the lessons I learned in gymnastics—the most important being the idea of teamwork. I had this amazing medical team, family, and friends supporting me, so I needed to utilize that team as well as be a part of it. That meant doing something that was very difficult for me and is difficult for many women: accepting and asking for help. (Related: 4 Gynecological Problems You Shouldn't Ignore)
Next, I needed to set goals—goals that weren’t lofty. Not every goal has to be as big as the Olympics. My goals during chemo were very different, but they were still solid goals. Some days, my win for the day was to simply walk around my dining room table…twice. Other days it was keeping down one glass of water or getting dressed. Setting those simple, attainable goals became the cornerstone of my recovery. (Related: This Cancer Survivor's Fitness Transformation Is the Only Inspiration You Need)
Finally, I had to embrace my attitude for what it was. Given everything my body was going through, I had to remind myself that it was okay if I wasn’t positive all the time. It was okay to throw myself a pity party if I needed to. It was okay to cry. But then, I had to plant my feet and think about how I was going to continue moving forward, even if that meant falling a couple of times along the way.
Dealing with the Aftermath of Cancer
After my nine weeks of treatment, I was declared cancer-free.
Despite the difficulties of chemo, I knew that I was lucky to have survived. Especially considering ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women. I knew I had beat the odds and went home thinking that I was going to wake up the next day and feel better, stronger and ready to move on. My doctor warned me that it was going to take six months to a year to feel like myself again. Still, me being me, I thought, “Oh, I can get there in three months.” Needless to say, I was wrong. (Related: Influencer Elly Mayday Dies from Ovarian Cancer—After Doctors Initially Dismissed Her Symptoms)
There’s this huge misconception, brought on by society and ourselves, that once you’re in remission or ‘cancer-free’ life will quickly go on as it was before the disease, but that’s not the case. Many times you go home after treatment, having had this entire team of people, right there with you as you fought this exhausting battle, to having that support disappear almost overnight. I felt like I was supposed to be 100%, if not for me, then for others. They had battled through alongside me. I suddenly felt alone—similar to the feeling I had when I retired from gymnastics. All of a sudden I wasn’t going to my regular structured workouts, I wasn’t surrounded by my team constantly—it can be incredibly isolating.
It took more than a year for me to get through a whole day without feeling nauseous or debilitatingly exhausted. I describe it as waking up feeling like each limb weighs 1000 lbs. You lie there trying to figure out how you’ll even have the energy to stand up. Being an athlete taught me how to get in touch with my body, and my battle with cancer only deepened that understanding. While health was always a priority for me, the year after treatment gave making my health a priority a whole new meaning.
I realized that if I didn’t take proper care of myself; if I didn’t nurture my body in all the right ways, I wouldn’t be able to stick around for my family, my children, and all those who depend on me. Before that meant always being on the go and pushing my body to the limit, but now, that meant taking breaks and resting. (Related: I'm a Four-Time Cancer Survivor and a USA Track and Field Athlete)
I learned that if I needed to pause my life to go take a nap, that’s what I was going to do. If I didn’t have the energy to get through a million emails or do the laundry and dishes, then it was all going to wait until the next day—and that was okay too.
Being a world-class athlete doesn’t preclude you from facing struggle on and off the field of play. But I also knew that just because I wasn’t training for gold, didn’t mean I wasn’t training. In fact, I was in training for life! After cancer, I knew not to take my health for granted and that listening to my body was most important. I know my body better than anyone else. So when I feel like something isn’t right then I should be confident accepting that fact without feeling weak or that I’m complaining.
How I Hope to Empower Other Cancer Survivors
Adjusting to the ‘real world’ following treatment was a challenge I wasn’t ready for—and I came to realize that is a common reality for other cancer survivors as well. It’s what inspired me to become an ovarian cancer awareness advocate through the Our Way Forward program, which helps other women learn more about their disease and their options as they go through treatment, remission, and find their new normal.
I talk to so many survivors across the country, and that post-treatment phase of having cancer is what they struggle with the most. We need to have more of that communication, dialogue, and feeling of community as we return to our lives so that we know that we’re not alone. Creating this sisterhood of shared experiences through Our Way Forward has helped so many women engage with and learn from each other. (Related: Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Them Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)
While the battle with cancer is physical, so often, the emotional part of it gets undermined. On top of learning to adjust to post-cancer life, the fear of recurrence is a very real stressor that isn’t discussed often enough. As a cancer survivor, the rest of your life is spent going back to the doctor’s office for follow-ups and check-ups—and every time, you can’t help but worry: “What if it’s back?” Being able to talk about that fear with others who relate should be a pivotal part of every cancer survivor’s journey.
By being public about my story, I hoped that women would see that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how many gold medals you’ve won—cancer just doesn’t care. I urge you to make your health a priority, going in for your health check-ups, listening to your body and not feeling guilty about it. There’s nothing wrong with making your health a priority and being your own best advocate because, at the end of the day, no one is going to do it better!
Want more incredible motivation and insight from inspiring women? Join us this fall for our debut SHAPE Women Run the World Summit in New York City. Be sure to browse the e-curriculum here, too, to score all kinds of skills.