By Shannon Miller and Denise Albert
What do a seven-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics and an award-winning journalist and television producer have in common? Much more than you would think.
During a MAMARAZZI® event in May, Melissa and I were joined by Shannon Miller as part of a partnership with Our Way Forward and TESARO, Inc., an oncology-focused business within GSK. In getting to know Shannon, who many of you know as a decorated gymnast, I realized that while I was diagnosed with breast cancer and she is an ovarian cancer survivor, we share many similar experiences, emotions and challenges in our journey.
In 2011, Shannon Miller was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. As I have spoken about before, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015. During our discussion, it became apparent that there are so many similarities between our diagnoses, the impact cancer had on our families, parenting and finding unity with others in the cancer community. We hope that many of you can unite with us in our shared experiences and continue to learn and share with one another.
Be Your Own Advocate: Listen to Your Body
DENISE: At 41, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went to my regular mammogram and it was fine. Weeks later, I got a letter which said, “The tissue of both breasts is heterogeneously dense.” I didn’t even see that part of the letter because the top of it said, “normal.” Months later I felt a small lump that hurt and went right to the doctor.
SHANNON: I had a similar situation. I was actually on the phone to re-schedule my routine appointment but something told me not to. That day, my doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on one of my ovaries. I brushed off three primary symptoms of ovarian cancer. I attributed all the symptoms to something else, like weight loss because my body was changing post-baby, bloating and stomachaches, I assumed were due to my monthly cycle. It’s so important for women to listen to our bodies and speak up when something doesn’t seem right.
DENISE: I couldn’t agree more. Even now, I may be cancer free, but the diagnosis and continuing medications and decisions are forever. I scheduled an elective surgery, a salpingo-oophorectomy, a procedure to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes. I carry the HER2 gene so my cancer can return anywhere. But ovarian cancer is hard to detect. It’s often diagnosed at a later stage.
SHANNON: I think that’s the scariest thing. I had this mass growing but I could go to my doctor and tell him I felt perfectly fine. Not only was I dismissing my symptoms and general health concerns, I hadn’t even considered ovarian cancer as a cause. I didn’t want to complain. I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to give it much thought, I had too much to do. Now when I feel like something isn’t right, I say something right away.
Parenting Through a Cancer Diagnosis
SHANNON: My son was only 14 months old when I was diagnosed and it threw another wrench into the challenges of parenting. I remember when I would leave the house, my son would say, “Mommy don’t forget your hair.”
DENISE: Just like there’s no parenting manual, there’s no cancer manual. Combine the two and it’s scary. All I could think about was how I would care for my boys. When I’m sick, how will I do it? But I’m strong. I’m tough. And I called on friends. I relied on family.
SHANNON: And the community. I was scheduled to give a speech that fell during my chemo treatments. I was reluctant to cancel and hadn’t realized how difficult the treatment would be. That day, I felt absolutely awful. I didn’t know how I was going to even stand up through the 45 minute speech. But right before I went up, a woman came up to me and took my hand. She said, “I had the same rare tumor you have and the same doctor that you have. That was 10 years ago and now I have two amazing children. You are going to be okay.”
DENISE: That’s so inspiring. Especially because fertility is something that is discussed for many ovarian cancer diagnoses now.
SHANNON: Exactly. I was so fortunate that almost four years after our son, our daughter was born. We were fortunate that my other ovary “kicked in.” And thankfully, with the advancements in medicine, there are more fertility options than ever before for women with ovarian cancer, like egg freezing. It is important for women to be aware of these options and proactively start these conversations.
Uniting as Sisters in the Cancer Community
DENISE: Getting diagnosed wasn’t easy. Treatment wasn’t easy. But after sharing my cancer story, I was inundated with support. Calls, texts, emails and messages from friends and strangers saying how brave I am and it’s truly incredible to hear all of their stories.
SHANNON: You are brave! Cancer doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, or how many gold medals you have – we’re never alone in our journeys. Finding and forging personal connections can help us better navigate our new normal, from diagnosis through survivorship.
DENISE: How do you find those personal connections? Because I have been public about my journey, people reach out. Do you have a similar feeling?
SHANNON: I do. For me, I was so excited to partner with the Our Way Forwardprogram, which offers resources and support for individuals diagnosed with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. I wish I had a program like this when I was first diagnosed. During treatment, we have this incredible support team around us but the day treatment ends, you suddenly feel alone. Our Way Forward provides resources to help keep that morale going. We need to have more of that communication and feeling of community so we don’t feel so alone.
DENISE: That’s great. I feel like it’s also my responsibility now to help others in the community. Sharing my story helped me, and speaking to my new cancer-community friends each day gave me more inspiration to keep sharing and hopefully helping others.
SHANNON: There is a sisterhood in cancer and the journey it takes us on. And what hope we give to each other just by sharing our experiences.