As cancer survivors celebrate the start of Franklin’s Relay for Life, a familiar face will lead them.
Marie Miller has carried the Survivor Walk flag for the past six years. At 93, Miller doesn’t move as well as she used to. She can’t walk as far or get out as often as in the past.
But she still pulls on her tennis shoes a few days each week to get ready for Relay for Life.
Miller is a three-time breast cancer survivor over the past 25 years. She has endured mastectomies to remove her breasts, chemotherapy that made her so sick she couldn’t move and radiation for more than nine months.
She understands that she’s lucky and blessed to have survived as long as she has. She’s also realistic about what her future likely holds.
“I don’t think I’ll die of old age. I think cancer will get me in the end. Everyone says I’ll reach 100, but I don’t believe it,” she said.
On nice days, Miller walks around the parking lot of Lakeview Apartments in Franklin, where she has lived for 20 years. She would drive to Walmart when the weather turned bad and walk up and down the aisles.
“I used to walk all day long. But at 93, I had to slow down,” she said.
In her Franklin apartment, she still cares for herself. She cooks and cleans, although her daughter, Betty Bay, comes to help with some of the housework.
Miller still cares for her 66-year-old daughter, Anne Marie Miller, who has Down syndrome and is blind. They live together.
The amount that Miller is able to do is amazing, Bay said.
With her good health, quick mind and level of fitness, it’s easy to forget that on three different occasions she has fought cancer.
Miller was first diagnosed with cancer in 1989.
Doing a routine mammogram, doctors found a lump in her left breast. She had a lumpectomy to remove the cancer then went through chemotherapy and radiation.
Throughout her treatment, Miller continued to work. She would wrap up the day, then Bay would come to drive her to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
In 1989, breast cancer treatment was much different than it is now. Miller had to go through 38 weeks of radiation, more than nine months, which was standard treatment at the time.
Johnson Memorial Hospital, where she received most of her treatment, didn’t have dedicated facilities to give radiation, so she was sent to Indianapolis.
Chemotherapy was administered in a small room, slightly larger than a closet. Nurses would wheel in a television, so Miller could watch videos that she brought from home.
“Sometimes, the nurses would come in and watch the shows with me,” she said.
Nine years later, the cancer returned in the same breast. Imaging revealed that another tumor had formed, and her doctor recommended a mastectomy to remove the breast.
The diagnosis was crushing. After thinking she had beat the disease, to have it come back was devastating. So she turned to God for help.
“I had the faith. The Lord was with me. I believe in prayer, and it works,” she said.
Her experience helped her when a third diagnosis, this time in her right breast, required it to be removed as well.
Miller just celebrated her five-year anniversary of being cancer-free in February, which was a happy event underscored by a permanent uneasy feeling.
She realizes now that cancer can come back at any time.
“They say I’m cancer-free. You never know, it can come up again some other place,” she said.
But Miller doesn’t dwell on what could be. Rather, she celebrates the fact that she’s still alive.
Miller started attending the Relay for Life events in 2006. St. Rose Catholic Church, where she attended, had formed a team. The St. Rose team disbanded two years ago, but Miller was too invested in the event to step aside.
She was honored with the Gift of Time award at last year’s Relay for Life, recognizing her long struggle with the disease and her will to fight to survive.
“The award is presented to a survivor who has fought to give his or her family more time to spend with him or her,” said Erin Napier, chairwoman of Franklin’s Relay for Life. “Marie has exhibited courage, strength, honor, selflessness and love of life. She has a will to live.”
The award was a complete surprise. Miller was standing around with the other survivors after the initial lap of the event, when she heard her name called.
“At first, I wasn’t sure what it was. Then I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s me,’” she said.