- Olympic Gold gymnast Shannon Miller credits a routine checkup for detecting ovarian cancer and saving her life.
- She has been cancer free since 2011.
- Miller shares her journey and why she wants others to prioritize preventative care.
In late 2010, two-time Olympic Gold gymnast Shannon Miller was busy working, embracing motherhood, and planning for the holidays. To free up time, she called her OBGYN with the intention of rescheduling her routine checkup until after the New Year.
“[When] I called, I was put on hold and during those few seconds I remember feeling such guilt because I had already been working in the health and fitness area advocating for women to make their health a priority,” Miller told Healthline.
Wanting to walk the walk, she ended up taking an appointment that morning.
“I thought, ‘Ok, great. I’ll just get it done’ and it was that morning my doctor found a baseball size cyst on my ovary,” she said.
After several scans and tests, Miller was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. She was 33 years old.
“It was quite the shock. I told my doctor I felt fine that morning. I had completely forgotten all about the stomachaches and some bloating and some weight loss, but my body after a baby was changing and I really didn’t think much of [the symptoms] until I was diagnosed,” Miller said.
Ovarian cancer symptoms like abdominal bloating, early satiety, decreased weight, changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, and irregular vaginal bleeding can often be vague and non-specific, said Dr. Elena Pereira, a gynecologic oncologist at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital.
“It is important when you see your doctor that you share any symptoms that you may be having with them even if you do not think they could possibly be related to your [gynecological] concerns,” Pereira told Healthline.
Early detection of ovarian cancer saves lives
Ovarian-type cancers include cancers that start in the fallopian tubes and in the lining of the abdomen, known as the peritoneum, said Pereira.
“Detecting ovarian cancer at an early stage improves the chance of having the cancer not recur,” she said.
While the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage when they are found early, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.
Regular annual gynecologic examinations are the best way to detect ovarian cancer, said Dr. Mary E. Gordinier, gynecologic oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute.
“Many women do not realize that a pelvic exam is more than checking a Pap smear. The gynecologist feels the ovaries during the exam, and also asks questions about symptoms …That information allows the doctor to assess whether any other tests could be needed to check for a gynecologic cancer,” she told Healthline.
While there are not currently effective screenings for ovarian cancer that have proven to reduce mortality from the disease, she added that knowing your family history is helpful.
“If you have close relatives with breast or ovarian cancer, or with colon or uterine cancer, then seeing a genetic counselor to assess for genetic mutations that run in families may be a good idea,” Gordinier said.
She noted that your doctor can also help you navigate other prevention measures appropriate for you. For instance, she points to the protective effects of oral contraceptive pills.
“Studies have consistently shown that prolonged use of oral contraceptives reduces the risk of ovarian cancer, with a risk-reduction of over 50% with 5 or more years of use,” she said.
Birth control pills do carry the risk of certain side effects and may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. According to the ACS, women who are considering taking these medications should consult with their doctor to understand the possible risks and benefits.
Ovarian cancer treatment is effective and promising
Generally, treatment for ovarian cancer depends on the type of ovarian cancer, stage, and any situational factors, according to the ACS. Surgery to remove tumors is often part of the treatment plan, and depending on how advanced the cancer is, other types of treatment like targeted drugs, chemotherapy, or radiation might be needed before or after surgery.
In January 2011, Miller underwent surgery followed by chemotherapy and has been cancer-free since.
“When cancer is confined to the ovary, chemotherapy is generally necessary, however, the odds of the cancer recurring after treatment are low, in the 10-15% range,” said Gordinier.
While more women die of ovarian cancer than any other gynecologic cancer, she added that the disease is very treatable and is not a “death sentence.”
Prioritizing ovarian cancer prevention
While Miller is grateful for the treatment she received, she credits the routine checkup for saving her life. To pay it forward, she stepped out of her comfort zone and made it her mission to speak out about the importance of prevention practices, detection, awareness, research, and survivorship.
“I was extremely shy and painfully shy and the idea that I would be going out and speaking to thousands of people or about personal issues like my cancer journey, I never would have imagined that was in my life journey,” she said.
Her fans inspired her to be open. She recalled a letter from a woman who watched her compete in the Olympics. The woman told Miller that seeing her go through cancer made her realize that she needed to prioritize her health.
“[She wrote] ‘I’m a mom of three. I get them all to their doctor appointments, but I can’t remember the last time I went to mine and if this can happen to you, this can happen to me and I’m making my appointment today,’” said Miller.
The letter moved her so much that it inspired her to get over the embarrassment of talking about her ovaries.
Her latest endeavor is teaming up with Aflac to spread the word about the life-saving effects of preventive care. According to a study conducted by the company, 51% of Americans diagnosed with cancer found out at a routine medical exam or regularly scheduled screening. However, 1 in 4 say they have skipped regular checkups because they are healthy at the time. Other common reasons for postponing regular checkups include:
- Conflicts with work
- Not thinking about it
- They don’t like going to the doctor
- Insurance issues
- They don’t want to hear bad health news
- It takes too much time
“[Sometimes] things happen in life and you forget to make yourself a priority or you feel guilty for making yourself a priority,” said Miller. “[Aflac] has given me the opportunity to share my story and hopefully get others to put their wellness exams top of mind.”
She encourages people to see their doctors regularly even when they feel good to get baseline screenings and to develop a relationship with their providers.
“[So] when you have something that is feeling off or maybe you’re not even sure that it’s a big deal, you’re open to communicating those issues,” she said.