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Shannon Miller's Ovarian Cancer Battle

How the Gymnast Was Diganosed and Treated for Ovarian Cancer


Updated April 01, 2013

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

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, such as imaging tests such as an ultrasound, biopsies, and other blood tests. Although it is unknown as to what tests Shannon underwent, she likely had a combination of tests that ultimately revealed her diagnosis of 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 is in advanced stages, when treatment options are limited and less effective. Researchers believe they have identified early warning signs of the disease, but the symptoms are vague and often related to more common, less serious conditions and diseases. Read more about the early symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Miller underwent surgery to remove the tumor and the ovary. After surgery, Miller endured 9 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 may affect her son, "My biggest worry was that my son, now 16 months old, would be scared of mommy. What would he think of my bald head? 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 had not even looked in a mirror since shaving my head. I wore my hat or wig around Rocco for the next couple days while I worked on my own comfort level. I forced myself to look in the mirror and reach up and feel my head."

Today, Shannon is cancer free and resides in Jacksonville, Florida. Her foundation, The Shannon Miller Foundation, maintains the website, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, that aims to promote women's health and cancer awareness. On the website, you can download Shannon's free e-book about her diagnosis with ovarian cancer and the treatment she underwent for the disease. To learn more about Shannon, you can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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