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Shannon Miller views own cancer as opportunity to help others

By her own admission, Shannon Miller wasn't always comfortable with crowds. The shy, humble gymnast even questioned her own mettle to the point she'd tell people she was a chicken, the kind who would miss an element and worry about trying it again. But somewhere along the way Miller found the gumption to get back up after a hard knock until the skills became more polished. Eventually, the gymnastics routines went from better to stellar to spectacular. For the seven-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion there was always hidden determination and courage behind the graceful finished product.

There is nothing hidden about Miller's challenge this week, but the courage is unmistakable. On Monday, she began her first dose of chemotherapy following the removal of an ovarian cyst seven weeks ago. It seemed an unlikely journey for a 33-year-old with an Olympic pedigree, no family history of the disease and no symptoms. Miller isn't sure why she has gotten sick, but she's taken her public platform and turned it into a philanthropic career as a health advocate for women and children.

"Maybe it happened to me because it's something I can handle," she said in a phone interview last weekend. "This is the biggest challenge I've faced in my life, but I feel I'm ready for it."

That says a lot. As a gymnast, Miller became one of the most decorated women of her day. In between Olympic appearances in Barcelona and Atlanta, she won the world all-around title in 1993 and 1994. She often battled injuries during her career, especially during Olympic years. She dislocated an elbow shortly before the U.S. nationals in 1992 and had severe tendinitis in her wrist in 1996. But that summer, she capped her career as a member of the "Magnificent Seven" that captured team gold at the Atlanta Games. She also became the first U.S. gymnast to win Olympic gold on the balance beam. She tried a comeback four years later, but had to drop out of the Olympic trials because of a knee injury.

In the intervening years, Miller completed law school at Boston College, became an activist for the prevention of childhood obesity, married John Falconetti (the president of Drummond Press publishing) and had a son, Rocco, in 2009. She also started Shannon Miller Lifestyle, a website particularly dedicated to women's health. She had no idea the advice she was giving would be so helpful to her.

"One message was pretty important: letting women know we should never miss an appointment," she says. "We do things for our family, for kids, we always make sure everything is in order, but we don't take time for ourselves." Through her health advocacy, Miller knew that postponements were a bad idea, but she almost didn't heed her own words.

"I had an appointment set for December," she says, "but I was so busy I was going to reschedule for January. A few weeks? What would it matter?"

Instead, Miller managed to get an appointment that day, and the timing was vital. Doctors discovered something that wasn't right and suggested she take some precautionary tests. That led to more tests and eventually the diagnosis: Miller had a baseball-sized cyst on one of her ovaries. Doctors determined it was a germ-cell malignancy, a rare occurrence that is actually more likely to afflict women younger than Miller. Thanks to the early detection, successful surgery and planned schedule of chemo, doctors estimate her recovery rate to be around 99 percent.

Still, Miller is attacking her road to recovery with the zeal of a prospective Olympian. She's aiming for six small meals a day. She must keep her protein level up and drink as many as 64 ounces of water a day, which, she confesses, is too much for her liking. She must exercise (within limitations) and tone her muscles by stretching and moving. Her athletic goals are more modest now.

"I was really happy to be able to lift my son again," she says.

In the days leading up to the chemo, Miller took to doing things she found both practical and relaxing: baking chocolate chip cookies and learning to use her often-vexing Kindle. Though she had understandably thought of keeping the recovery a private matter, Miller saw this as a chance to help others, either as a soothing example of grace under pressure or perhaps as a necessary reminder to get tested, no matter the inconvenience. As soon as she went public on her website last week, the support began pouring in: letters, faxes, e-mails, Tweets, packets of cards from children.

The sense of purpose beyond her own struggle has emboldened Miller, who plans to share regular updates of progress on her website, shannonmillerlifestyle.com. Granted, the physical annoyances won't be fun, but the reward will be shared.

"If I can help even one person," she says, "that also helps me."

One e-mail from a woman named Sarah, also a 33-year-old mother, stood out for Miller. It read, in part, "It had been so hard to find a young mother going through this. I searched for blogs to find someone with similar experience, but I felt so alone. Now I don't feel so alone."

It is not the first time in her life that Miller is lifting crowds of people, and though she may not be able to see them these days, she knows the cheering has never been more heartfelt.

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