She survived ovarian cancer in 2011, but Olympian Shannon Miller still says annual checkups are nerve-racking. So she continues to raise awareness of cancer immunotherapy research, joining the social media campaign, “A Future Immune to Cancer.™”The global effort for New York-based Cancer Research Institute, supports the work of over 3,300 scientists globally.
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Smiling here because today was a good day. Another check up and another good report with almost 9 yrs cancer free. But I admit that these check-up days are simply draining. It’s the smile I force in front of the kids as I busy myself (trying not to count the minutes until appointment time) as I inevitably recall what it was like to be stuck in bed too weak and nauseous to play with my son. It’s the underlying anxiety and worry, that I can typically push away, and yet bubbles to the surface as I walk in the door of my oncologists office. It’s the wave of relief when I hear “your labs look good” which is soon replaced with the reality of making the next appointment. But today was a good day. Actually a great day! Every day I’m cancer free is a great day. I may feel completely drained by 2pm in the afternoon but I’ll remedy that with kiddo snuggles, some comfort food and a super early bedtime. And, tomorrow, I’ll feel blessed to have another great day. #survivor #ovariancancer #cancer #thriver
“My skill set includes tumbling on a balance beam, not curing cancer,” Miller said on Instagram. She was a member of the 1996 “Magnificent Seven,” who won the first-ever gold medal for United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team in Atlanta.
“But as a survivor, as the daughter of a survivor, a friend of so many survivors, I hope to continue to raise awareness of … research so that these incredible people can continue to help us fight the good fight each and every day. Immunotherapy is critical in the battle against all cancers.”
Dr. Jim Allison, 2018 Nobel Prize winner, tells SurvivorNet that the next big wave of cancer research will likely involve combining immunotherapy with targeted drugs.
Combination Therapies Offer New Hope
Immunotherapy combined with chemotherapy is, indeed, offering new hope for people with more and more types of cancer. Specific drugs that have been shown to improve patient outlook include:
- Tecentriq, which, when used as a complementary treatment to chemotherapy in a study of 900 women with triple-negative breast cancer, extended the lives patients by as much as 9 1/2 months compared to patients who were treated with chemotherapy alone.
- Obdivo, which was shown to have a survival length of 10.6 months in first relapsed acute myeloid leukemia patients, which was double that of such patients being treated just with chemotherapy.
- Keytruda, which, when treating patients battling non-small cell lung cancer, produced a 69.2% survival rate at 12 months when used in combination with chemotherapy, compared to a survival rate of 49.4% at 12 months when patients were treated with chemotherapy alone.
In addition, breakthrough studies are being done with such methods to fight bladder cancer and melanoma—and the list goes on. It all spells exciting things to come as doctors and researchers continue to develop their understanding of the possibilities of this type of combination therapy, in which immunotherapies and traditional cancer treatments create a “doubly whammy,” as Dr. Allison puts it, of cancer-fighting power.
And the possible benefits are so widespread because, he continues, while targeted therapies must be different for each type of cancer, immunotherapy doesn’t have to be tailored individually. “You’re not treating the cancer cell, you’re treating the immune system. So the cancer doesn’t really matter.”
Cancer Will “Humble You Real Quick”
In an interview with SurvivorNet, Miller said she was just 33 when she was diagnosed with germ cell ovarian cancer in 2011. Germ cell tumors are more likely to impact a single ovary and are more likely to occur in younger women. About 90% of these cases can be cured while preserving a woman’s fertility.
When Miller first decided to go public with her illness, she felt empowered: “I came from a shy background. I would hardly speak during my [gymnastics] training. But I realized, you know what? I’ll go around and talk about my ovaries all day long, if it makes even one person think, ‘yep, I’m going to go to the doctor. I’m going to focus on my health.’ Then it is all worth it,” she told SurvivorNet.
Anxiety: The Gift of Survivorship
Miller describes the feeling of scan-xiety — familiar to cancer survivors — in a recent Instagram post (above). “It’s the smile I force in front of the kids as I busy myself (trying not to count the minutes until appointment time) as I inevitably recall what it was like to be stuck in bed too weak and nauseous to play with my son.”
She pushes away the underlying anxiety, she says, although it “bubbles to the surface as I walk in the door of my oncologist’s office.
“It’s the wave of relief when I hear “your labs look good” which is soon replaced with the reality of making the next appointment. But today was a good day. Actually a great day! Every ay I’m cancer-free is a great day.”
Dr. David Cibula, former President of the European Society of Gynecological Oncology (ESGO), says combining immunotherapy with standard treatment is extending survival for women with relapsed ovarian cancer.
Screening for ovarian cancer?
Despite ovarian cancer’s reputation for being a devastating disease, when detected early enough, the disease has a better than 90% cure rate. The problem: it’s not an easy disease to diagnose, especially in its nascent stages, so only 20% of cases are caught early on.
Dr. Beth Karlan calls screening for ovarian cancer, “the holy grail.” Symptoms of the disease, like abdominal bloating, are subtle.
Dr. Beth Karlan, a gynecologic oncologist at UCLA Medical Center, says, “In certain high-risk women, who have either inherited a defect in a gene called BRCA1 or 2 or other associated genes with hereditary ovarian cancer, you should undergo an ultrasound of the pelvis—transvaginal ultrasound—and a CA-125, [a blood test] because it’s the best we have at the current time.”
But these tests are only routinely available for women with the aforementioned family histories of cancer, inherited genetic conditions like Lynch syndrome (which is a form of colorectal cancer) and/or women presenting with recurring symptoms of the disease.
In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, low-risk women may be better off skipping screening if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. “In studies of women at average risk of ovarian cancer, using TVUS [transvaginal ultrasound] and CA-125 [blood test] for screening led to more testing and sometimes more surgeries, but did not lower the number of deaths caused by ovarian cancer.” And so for that reason, they don’t recommend routine testing.
So while there’s no widespread screening method currently available, researchers are working hard to find one. As Dr. Karlan says, “finding an early detection method for ovarian cancer is really like the holy grail.”