Olympic Gymnast Shannon Miller Talks Women's Health, Her Cancer Diagnosis and Simone Biles

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·3-min read
Olympic Gymnast Shannon Miller Talks Women's Health, Her Cancer Diagnosis and Simone Biles
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In 1996, Shannon Miller was a household name, winning two gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics after scoring two silver and three bronze at the Barcelona games four years prior.

But by 2011, her name was in the news for a different reason: she'd been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, after her doctor found a baseball-sized cyst on her left ovary.

"I was very vigilant about my health as an athlete," Miller, now 44 and cancer-free, tells PEOPLE. "My body was the tool I used to become the best in the world at something. But I lost that sense of listening to my body and focusing on it along the way."

The wake-up call prompted Miller to join forces with Ascension, encouraging women to advocate for themselves at doctors' appointments — and actually get out the door and go to those checkups.

RELATED PHOTOS: The 'Magnificent Seven' Team USA Gymnasts of 1996: Where Are They Now?

"I think it's important for women to know it's not selfish to make your health a priority," she explains. "If we aren't healthy, we can't be here for those who depend on us. So that means getting back to our regular screenings and exams, and getting a doctor you feel very comfortable with to have that open dialogue and communication."

Miller recalls telling her doctor she "felt fine" at the appointment that uncovered her cancer diagnosis, "forgetting about the bloating, the stomach pains, the sudden weight loss," she shares. "I went in there thinking, 'How fast can I get out?' "

SHANNON MILLER
SHANNON MILLER

Ed Reinke/AP/Shutterstock Shannon Miller competing in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta

Now, she takes notes when something isn't feeling right, and if a symptom has been lingering for more than two weeks, she calls her doctor. "The best news you can get is that it's nothing," she adds.

To that end, Miller says she supports Simone Biles' recent decision to withdraw from some of her competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.

RELATED: Dominique Moceanu Posts Clip of 1996 Injury to Support Simone Biles: 'I NEVER' Had Say in My Health

"She essentially said, 'You know what. I've checked in with myself and there's something that doesn't feel quite right. Maybe it's best for my health and safety to step away at this time.' I think that's really important for her to know that about herself," Miller continues. "And that's what prioritizing your health is all about, for all of us. We have to pay close attention to ourselves to notice those clues that something doesn't quite feel right, and then take appropriate action to get the care and support we need."

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Miller would've loved to have seen Biles overtake her 25-year record as the most decorated U.S. female gymnast in Olympics history (she can still tie the record if she medals on beam), calling her "so much fun to watch and a great ambassador for the sport."

"Her skills are incredible," she adds, "she is such an amazing athlete."

But regardless, she's been thrilled to root for Team USA alongside her two children and her former "Magnificent Seven" 1996 Olympic gymnasts teammates.

"It's been fun reliving those moments," she shares. "Though usually these days when we get together or text we're talking about life and kids and all that fun stuff. But one of the greatest things to come out of my gymnastics career was the friendships and bonds that last a lifetime."

And the skills … even if she's not practicing too much these days. "I'll do a good cartwheel or forward roll but other than that not very much," she says, "just so my kids will laugh!"

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