The Gold Medal Mindset: The Importance of a Team in the Fight Against Cancer

January 2018 Vol 9, No 1
The Art of Effective Navigation: Details That Lead to Success - Amy Jo Pixley

An athlete doesn’t win an Olympic gold medal alone, and a patient doesn’t beat cancer alone. It takes a team to succeed, and navigators are a vital part of that team, according to Shannon Miller, 7-time Olympic medalist and ovarian cancer survivor.

A diagnosis of cancer sends a person into a new world with a whole new vocabulary, and navigators are invaluable in helping patients traverse the daily physical, mental, emotional, and psychological challenges of fighting cancer.

“In life, we always remember the highlights, but I’ve vaulted myself right onto my backside, I’ve fallen off the beam at least a thousand times and suffered a litany of other injuries and indignities in my career as a competitive athlete,” she said during the keynote speech at the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators (AONN+) 8th Annual Navigation & Survivorship Conference. “Those moments were sometimes embarrassing and certainly defeating, but they only made me stronger. And that’s life. You get knocked down, and you have to find a way to get back up, put one foot in front of the next, and keep going.”

According to Ms Miller, it was in those mistakes, challenges, and falls that she learned how important it is to get back up, to keep moving forward, and to keep relying on her team.

The Importance of Setting Goals

Goal setting was paramount in Ms Miller’s career as a gymnast, and something she began practicing around the age of 9 years, long before competing alongside the “Magnificent Seven,” the first women’s gymnastics team to bring home Olympic gold for the United States.

She said the lessons she learned through sport—about goal setting, teamwork, and the importance of a positive attitude—have been some of the most important lessons in her life. They helped her to excel in gymnastics, as a mother, as president of her company, and perhaps most importantly, in her battle against cancer.

Every competitive season, her coach passed out index cards and told members of her team to write down their long-term goals (hers ranged from competing in a state competition to eventually representing the United States at the Olympic Games). “But we didn’t get off that easy,” she said. “It’s great to have a dream, but what are you going to do to get there?”

On the other side of the card they were told to write their short-term goals—what they would have to do day in and day out to achieve their dreams. She said for her, these short-term goals were monotonous, the everyday drudgery. “This was the stuff I had to get done; it wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t exciting, it was working out 6 to 7 hours each day,” she said. “But it was my goals that helped keep me motivated during even the toughest of times. And during my cancer battle, it was my goals that helped me keep moving forward each and every day.”

From Olympian to Cancer Survivor

In the fall of 2010, Ms Miller’s doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on her left ovary, and she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer.

“I have some amazing titles: Olympian, gold medalist, president of my company, and mom,” she said. “But there is one title I never imagined I would have—certainly not before the age of 34—never did I imagine the title ‘cancer survivor.’”

After surgery to remove the tumor, Ms Miller, her medical team, and her family came together to create a plan of action. “I went from a victim mentality back to that competitive mentality I knew so well,” she said. “I was ready to move forward. Regardless of the outcome, I needed to feel like I was participating in my own health.”

She tried to attack chemotherapy the same way she would a gymnastics routine but said she was humbled like never before. After going through more than 10 nausea medications with no improvement, she wanted to give up, but she remembers a nurse walking into her hospital room at an opportune moment.

“I don’t know if I’d utilized the importance of teamwork much since my days in sport, but it came flooding back in that moment,” she recalled. “I needed that image, I needed her walking in for that physical reminder. I began thinking about this incredible team of people—nurses, doctors, friends, and family—and I began to embrace the idea of team again. It’s how I got through the toughest times.”

When she looked in the mirror and saw no hair, no eyelashes, no eyebrows, and translucent skin, she had to constantly remind herself of her goals. “Losing my hair was about doing everything I could to get and remain healthy. This was my forward step,” she said.

Getting Back to the Goals

Some days, Ms Miller’s biggest goal was to get up, get dressed, and walk twice around her dining room table. “It was a far cry from that athlete standing on the gold medal podium, but it was just as thrilling,” she said.

She considers herself fortunate to have had so many positive people in her life—from her OB-GYN who told her not to worry but was proactive in continuing with further tests—to the nurses who took care of her day in and day out.

Through the cancer process, she gained insight on the importance of self-care. She now does her best to make her health a priority, and encourages navigators to take care of themselves, too, as a constant outward focus can take its toll mentally and physically. “It’s not an easy road you’ve chosen,” she told attendees. “You’re there at some of the most heart-wrenching moments in a person’s life, but you’re also there at some of the most hopeful.”

During recovery, she says she had to constantly remember to set goals, rely on her team, and focus on the positive.

“You all know firsthand that getting things done doesn’t happen without creating a plan of action. You work tirelessly for specific goals for the short term that will allow you to attain that long-term vision,” she told the audience. “And when the road gets tough, and you’re not sure if your work makes a difference, please understand that what you do every single day matters. You are saving lives in more ways than one.”

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Last modified: August 10, 2023

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