Supporting the Woman Who Has Always Supported Our Family

September 30, 2016

Shannon has always been busy.

As an Olympic gymnast, her career took her across the world and back, and though she’s no longer competing for Team USA, she’s never slowed down. Shannon not only has degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship, but she also has a law degree from Boston College. At the time of her diagnosis, she spent her days balancing caring for our family members — me and Rocco, our one-year-old son — with growing her business. There wasn’t time for much more than that.

Even when her stomachaches grew more frequent and painful and her days were interrupted, she continued to meet obligations and care for our family. She might briefly complain of the aches, then move on. One afternoon, she literally found herself crawling on the floor because of the pain, but she was quick to pass it off as part of being a woman or changes in her body after she stopped nursing our son.

At a routine checkup, Shannon told her physician she felt great, not even recalling the frequent pains and sudden weight loss that she’d attributed to her busy schedule. Like so many women, she tended to gloss over any issues she was having in an effort to care for others. So she was taken by surprise when her gynecologist found a baseball-size cyst on her left ovary.

The following weeks were a blur of excruciating scans and tests, but surgery confirmed the unthinkable: Shannon had a rare form of ovarian cancer.

We were shocked. Shannon had so easily dismissed her symptoms, and neither of us were really aware that ovarian cancer could strike at such a young age. It just wasn’t in our thought process — I would have never thought her stomachaches meant cancer. There wasn’t even a screening she could have taken as a preventive measure. But we were lucky. The oncologist let us know how critical it is that ovarian cancer is detected early, as Shannon’s was. With this knowledge, the two of us remained hopeful.

Cancer brought a wave of new questions into Shannon’s life, and my job was to listen. I knew I couldn’t comprehend her experience firsthand, but I committed to helping her understand her thoughts and emotions. She had a lot of points to consider and options to weigh, and I wanted to make sure I worked with her as she created an action plan.

Her doctor recommended chemotherapy after surgery. Shannon wanted to treat her condition aggressively and agreed with his plan of action. When she found out about chemo, Shannon turned to me and said, “If I need to go down this path, and I need to go down this journey, it’s important to me that I understand how I can help others as well.”

She couldn’t fully know how difficult the journey ahead would be, and her first thought was helping others through her experience. But that’s Shannon — most everyone recognizes her strength and willpower, but what you don’t see on television or in interviews is her incredible capacity to put others first.

With her treatments underway, I took a more active role in supporting Shannon. She had always been the family’s caregiver, but it was my turn to take over. I began taking on the family’s day-to-day needs, keeping up the house and making sure our son was cared for. I reminded her constantly that she needed to think of herself and her own wellness, to finally put herself first.

As husbands, we can’t imagine what our wives go through when battling ovarian cancer — the pain they experience or the thoughts running through their minds. Women face their own mortality on this journey, and husbands have to acknowledge that. With ovarian cancer, women need to focus on themselves. Making this happen is our job. Survival must be a team effort.

Letting me take over as the primary caregiver wasn’t easy for Shannon. As a wife and mother, her desire to care for others is so deep-seated that it wasn’t something she could simply hand over. I may have been the one taking care of our son and home, but even through her treatments, terrible side effects, and therapy, I knew there was not one moment that Shannon wasn’t thinking of those around her.

Shannon conquered her ovarian cancer, and both she and I know her victory was, in great part, due to early detection. Now five years cancer-free, we’ve since been blessed with another child, our daughter Sterling. If her condition had been misdiagnosed, mishandled, or diagnosed later, Shannon’s story could have turned out much differently.

True to her word, Shannon is now using her profile as an Olympic athlete to educate other women about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.

She’s a proud ambassador of the OVA1 test, the only FDA-approved blood test that has a high sensitivity and can help assess ovarian cancer risk at any stage and with any subtype. The test gives doctors and women reassurance in their treatment plans: If it’s low risk, they can stay with the current surgical plan, and if it’s high risk, they will benefit from a referral to a gynecologic oncologist to help improve outcomes.

Ovarian cancer’s symptoms are so easy for women to explain away throughout their busy days, but — and I echo Shannon’s words here — women need to make listening to their bodies a priority. They must commit to routine checkups and maintain an open dialogue with their physicians. You’re never too busy to pay attention to your health. We all have women in our lives we love: daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, and friends. We all know someone. If we learn the signs and symptoms, we can continue to help those we love by helping them pay attention to their health. Together, we can help save lives.

John Falconetti is Shannon Miller’s husband. Everyone Knows Someone who has been impacted by ovarian cancer. Now it’s time to raise our voices and bring more awareness to this disease. Share #WhoYouKnow that has been impacted by ovarian cancer with a tweet, picture, video on social media. Celebrate the survivors in your life and honor the memories of the women that have passed away during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.