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She was an athlete, accustomed to pushing mind and body to excel. Then cancer struck. Instead of accepting the disease meekly, Emily Miller attacked it like she would a soccer ball in a hotly contested match.
“Cancer picked the wrong body,” she proclaimed. “Ninety percent of what happens to you is due to your attitude. Well, I have plenty of that!”
Two years ago, Emily was a member of her university’s soccer team. She trained rigorously, avoided alcohol and tobacco, and consistently made the Dean’s list. Gradually, her left leg began to hurt. When the pain worsened, Emily sought medical help. She was totally unprepared for a diagnosis of osteosarcoma. But the determination that helped her vanquish opponents on the soccer field shone through.
“I had to make a conscious decision,” Emily reflects, “whether I was going to lie there and die, lie there and just make it, or get up and win. I chose to win.”
In April of 2003, Emily began treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. During the next 10 months, she endured endless rounds of chemotherapy and an operation to remove her knee and most of her femur and tibia. Surgeons replaced these bones with a prosthesis that extends from her upper thigh to just above the ankle.
After the operation, Emily had to “teach” her leg to respond to her commands. She worked extremely hard, and was able to cast aside her brace and crutches only four weeks after surgery. As an athlete determined to regain her mobility, Emily continued going through difficult physical therapy every day for months. “It paid off, because I have unbelievable flexion and extension now,” she says.
Meanwhile, Emily’s teammates upheld her with prayers, cards, and even a trip to Memphis on their team bus. Students organized a St. Jude race in her honor, a tradition that will continue in the future as the Miller Mile Marathon.
“I made it to the race last year,” she says. “My counts were really low and I had very few platelets, but I went anyway. I just had to do it. I shot the gun at the start, and I slapped every hand as they came across the finish line.”
Emily returned to college in the fall of 2004. She finds immense joy in the day-to-day routine of attending classes and serving as the soccer team’s assistant coach.
“One thing I learned,” she says. “When it comes to life, you only go around once. But if you do it right, once is enough. That’s what I live by every day. Often, I’m out on the soccer field with my eyes closed behind my sunglasses, and I’m just sniffing the air and feeling the grass and enjoying being alive.”
In spring of 2004, the National Collegiate Athletic Association presented Emily with the NCAA Inspiration Award for her ability to persevere and serve as a role model for others. When she graduates from college, she hopes to channel her enthusiasm and skills into a career at ALSAC, the hospital’s fund-raising organization. But for now, Emily helps one patient at a time. St. Jude nurses and physicians often ask her to speak with patients who are having difficulty.
“I have an undeniable urge to help other people in my situation and to make them aware that they, too, can choose to fight,” Emily says. “There are miracles riding tricycles all over this hospital. Anywhere else you go, they treat you like a medical case. Here, you’re a person; you’re a name; you’re a face. You’re loved.
“Patients just need to know that if they choose to get up and fight, that everybody at St. Jude’s going to be there to help push them along.”
To read comments by Emily's mom, click the link in Related Topics.
Reprinted from winter 2005 Promise magazine.
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