Olympic gold medalist, cancer survivor advocates a healthy lifestyle
by Emily Adams
SYLACAUGA – Coosa Valley Medical Center held its third annual Women’s Health Extravaganza on Monday night featuring Olympic gold medalist and cancer survivor Shannon Miller.

The evening held moments of laughter, tears and encouragement for the pink-clad guests, who filled the J. Craig Smith Community Center decked out with chandeliers, flowers and plenty of pink. Gold medals on pink ribbon adorned every place setting, a special touch in keeping with Miller’s accomplishments.

The program began with music from David and Catie Simpkins, whose version of “Skin” left more than a few women wiping their eyes.

Miller followed, sharing an inspiring tale about her journey to the 1996 Olympics, where she led the “Magnificent Seven” to the U.S. Women’s Team Gold and was the first American gymnast to win gold on the balance beam. Miller remains the most decorated gymnast in American history with 59 international and 49 national competition medals.

Now a health and fitness advocate, Miller has launched her own company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle.

“The focus of my company is to help women make their health a priority and to assure them that’s OK,” Miller said. “It’s not a selfish act to take time for yourself. It is a very selfless act, because, when you think about it, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we may not be around to take care of all of those that count on us each and every day.”

Miller realized the importance of taking her own advice in December of 2010 when she went to an annual exam – one that she had almost canceled.

“That morning, in the span of about 15 minutes, my entire world changed,” she said. “My doctor said I had a 7 centimeter cyst on my left ovary, the size of a baseball. To this day, I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that you could have something that size in you and not know it.”

After undergoing “a whirlwind of tests, screenings and doctor’s appointments,” Miller underwent surgery to remove the tumor along with her left fallopian tube and ovary, still not knowing whether it was cancerous.

“Losing control was very difficult,” Miller recalled. “I’d always used my body as a tool. In gymnastics, if I wanted to get stronger, I know what to do and I can work hard on that. Here, all of the sudden, my body was betraying me.”

The surgery was successful thanks to early detection, but Miller soon learned the cancer was stronger than they initially thought, and she would need nine weeks of chemotherapy. In keeping with her lifestyle, Miller said she looked for the best diet and exercise to benefit her treatment, just as she would for a gymnastics competition.

“This is not the type of competitor that you race to the finish line,” Miller said. “This is the type of competitor that you out-train, you out-maneuver. You dig in and you do the work every single day. Chemotherapy was a tool I could use, and preparation was, as always, the key.”

After a successful treatment, the now cancer-free Miller, who resides in Jacksonville, Fla., with her husband and son, said she learned many lessons through her years of competition and her cancer diagnosis – like how important it is to have a positive attitude, allow yourself moments of raw emotion, have a support group and ask for help when you need it. Above all, Miller said focusing on health must become a priority.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or how many gold medals you have, health is health, and we all have to focus on that,” she said.

Miller ended the night by challenging guests to write down one thing they will do today to improve their health, whether it is a 20-minute walk or a healthy meal.

“I’m giving you the go-ahead to focus on you for a change,” she said. “Together we will raise our voices. Together we will create awareness. Together we will continue to fight, and together, we will never give up.”

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2012