“I felt a little lump in my neck,” the Lower Columbia College volleyball player said. “Sometimes your lymph nodes will swell up when you’re sick, but the lump was lower than that. I felt the other side of my neck and didn’t feel a lump there.”
It turned out Miller was sick, but not in the way she was thought. A visit to urgent care was soon in the works.
Doctors there thought it was probably a cyst, and that Miller might need surgery to remove it. But, following an MRI, a CT scan and an ultrasound, her doctor decided to do a biopsy.
“That was the worst experience of my life,” Miller said. “They stuck eight super-long needles into my neck and pulled out cells to test for cancer. It was so painful, and I was scared to breathe and was crying.”
This is bad technique. Thyroid FNA should be relatively painless if thin needles are used.
Miller returned to Longview and to her job at Panda Express. When her mother got the test results, she immediately drove to Longview to give her daughter the results.
The young woman had thyroid cancer.
“I didn’t know much about thyroid cancer, and I didn’t know where my life was going from there,” Miller said.
Miller researched thyroid cancer and talked with doctors and endocrinologists. They told her that, as far as cancers go, this was the “best type” to get, as it has a 90 percent survival rate.
“I was in complete shock when I heard,” LCC volleyball coach Carri Smith said. “It was a phone call I never expected to get.”
On May 7, Miller had surgery at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
The procedure lasted nine hours, and her doctors discovered complications. The cancer had spread and wrapped itself around one of her vocal cord nerves which controls the vocal cord in swallowing and breathing.
In order to save her life, the doctor had to remove the nerve, and he told Miller that he had struggled with the decision to do so, knowing the impact the removal would have on her athlete body.
It is rare to have a 9 hour thyroid surgery for thyroid cancer.
Although the nerve would regenerate in six months to a year, in the meantime her air intake would be cut by 60 percent. She wasn’t able to talk and swallowing was difficult.
That didn’t daunt Miller in the least.
“I told my doctor that volleyball season started the beginning of August, and I was going to be there,” she said.
Treatment for the cancer didn’t stop at surgery.
“There was no possible way they could’ve got every cancer cell out of my neck, so I had to have radioactive iodine treatments,” she said. “I took a pill which made my body radioactive, and the only thing that picked up the iodine was the thyroid. I couldn’t be around people for a week, and that was difficult since I wanted to be with family.”
Miller didn’t tell a lot of people about her surgery, noting she isn’t the type to post everything about her life on social media. Her college family took care of that.
“During surgery, Kirc (Roland, LCC athletic director) put together an LCC rally for me and posted it on Twitter,” she said. “There were so many retweets and favorites, and my phone blew up with messages.”
“Everyone was cheering, and I couldn’t yell,” she said. “We won, and I wanted to scream. My teammates asked me what I wanted to say, and I told them ‘Go Devs’ or ‘Go boys.’”
Miller worked hard to get back in volleyball shape, and came true on her promise to return to the team by August.
“We ran Lake Sacajawea, and that was hard,” she said. “I ran with my roommate (Maddie Stimmel), and I don’t think I could’ve made it without her encouragement. I felt good after the run, but I could tell my airflow was cut down, but I was still able to finish second.”
Learning to regulate the amount of a medication called levothyroxine she takes everyday has also been a challenge. The medication replaces the missing thyroid hormones and avoid the side effects of hypothyroidism (low thyroid).
“Each person has a certain level of it in their bodies, and I have to take a pill for it every morning,” she said. “It’s hard to figure the level I need, and there’s certain symptoms if it’s too high or too low. Sometimes I get terrible leg cramps from it being too low.”
Most patients have no problem taking thyroid hormone.
“She called and gave me some test results, and told me I’d need to take more thyroid meds before the game,”
This is not true as the dose of thyroid when changed takes several weeks to change her levels in the blood. Therefore a rush to take a dose 30 minutes before a game was not necessary and caused anxiety in the patient.
she said. “It was 30 minutes before the game, and I told my coaches I had to go home and get more meds. They were super supportive and understanding, and I made it back and played well.”
Her teammates have been supportive in her comeback. During a recent home match for cancer awareness, her teammates and coaches wore “Megan Strong” t-shirts for warm-ups.
“They made it all about me, and it was really cool having support from the LCC community, and my coaches and teammates,” Miller said.
Smith noted that not only has Miller made a seamless transition back to the court, she’s also adapted to playing a new position.
“I moved her to middle blocker from outside hitter,” she said. “It’s a difficult position with constant movement at the net, the jumping and the quick transitions. She’s putting the team first because that’s who she is, and she’s been ruling the position like a champ.”
Miller leads the Devils with 232 kills, doing so with a team-high .297 attack percentage. She also paces LCC with 37 blocks.
Miller admits that long rallies have left her winded, and there are times when she has to settle down and control her breathing.
“It’s like being in water and you can’t get to the surface fast enough to get air,” she said. “It’s stressful if you can’t think and can’t breathe. It’s a lot better than the first part of the season.”
Miller has also never made excuses for her play during practices or in matches.
“Sometimes Megan will come up to me and say she wasn’t herself and didn’t have the energy,” Smith said. “I thought that if that was her on low energy, that’s insane since she played fantastic. It’s been a pretty smooth transition, and she can outwork anyone on the court.”
Smith noted Miller has been an inspiration for the team.
“I’ve told her teammates if they’re feeling down in the dumps about something or tired, or they have stuff going on in their lives, they should look to their teammate standing next to them,” she said. “They need to think about how much worse their situation can be, and it changes their mindset.”