"I was lucky my doctors caught it," the Olympic gymnastics champ tells PEOPLE of the disease dubbed "the silent killer"
As she celebrates five years of being cancer-free, Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller, an ovarian cancer survivor, is determined to make every day count. “I thank God every day that I’m here,” she tells PEOPLE.
During her cancer battle, the seven-time Olympic medalist says there were moments that she was so weak that her goal for the day was simply to walk two laps around her dining room table.
Now the 39-year-old mother of two has the joy of chasing her son Rocco, 6, and daughter Sterling, 2, around their yard. “Instead of rushing the kids out the door to get in the car, I’m completely fine with stopping to look at bugs,” she says.
Miller is also happy to share her story if it will help other women beat ovarian cancer, the deadliest of the cancers that affect the female reproductive system. According to the American Cancer Society, about 22,280 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and about 14,240 women will die from it.
As a survivor, Miller wants women to know: “I was lucky my doctors caught it early. But I don’t want other women to count on luck. It’s important to learn the signs.”
Often described as a “silent killer,” ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms – which include pelvic pain, back pain, bloating, nausea and frequent urination – are easy to overlook.
Before Miller’s gynecologist found a baseball-sized cyst on her left ovary in December of 2010, she had been suffering severe stomachaches and bloating and she’d lost six pounds. But she dismissed the discomfort as part of the monthly hassles of her menstrual cycle and figured she was simply shedding more baby weight after giving birth to her son.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she says of her symptoms. When she did go see the doctor, she says, “I told him I felt fine.”
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Miller is hoping to keep other women from making that mistake by encouraging them to visit KnowPelvicMass.com to learn more about ovarian cancer and about a blood test called OVA1 that can help doctors determine if a mass could be cancerous, and if a specialist should perform the surgery to improve a patient’s chance of survival. OVA1 wasn’t available during Miller’s treatment, but she is a spokesperson now for the company that developed the test.
Miller, who is married to businessman John Falconetti, also runs her own company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, and she is looking forward to going to the Olympics in Rio this summer to provide analysis, 20 years after she competed in the games as part of the Magnificent Seven.
“These days,” says Miller, “I find I can’t stop smiling. Even when tough things happen, I do my best to find something positive to focus on.”