Eighteen years. Eighteen years will get one through high school. Eighteen years will invest one in retirement. Eighteen years is a long time. That’s how long Trish Miller, a retired elementary teacher, was cancer free.
Miller survived cervical cancer diagnosed in 1992, and had worked through other health problems while teaching in Washington schools, raising three children and taking care of her home with husband Tom, retired Washington school superintendent.
But, after 18 years, this summer Trish had thyroid surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules. It was a blood test in preparation for the surgery that gave doctors the first inclination that something was very wrong.
Her surgeon discovered that her white blood cell count was low. A visit to a hematologist from Evansville confirmed the blood-test findings and led to a bone marrow biopsy and a diagnosis of leukemia.
Tom Miller said they decided to go for a second opinion and were referred to the Oncology Hematology Associates in Evansville. A confirmation of the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia led the couple to visit a specialist at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis for a consultation on treatment. The specialist did another bone marrow biopsy on Oct. 14 and five days later Trish was hospitalized at the Simon Cancer Center, next door to IU Med Center, to begin chemotherapy. Friday will mark a month in the hospital where treatment has included chemotherapy to kill off all her cancerous blood cells.
With that processes complete, she now waits to find out if her new cells will be cancer-free. In the meantime, Trish is fighting infection, high fevers and what she described Tuesday as a “bad week.” Without the white blood cells, which fight off infection, she is susceptible to anything that comes along and can only leave her room to walk the halls of her floor fully gloved, gowned and masked so as not to pick up any bugs that may be lingering in the very sterile atmosphere.
Tom Miller shared recently about the fight his wife has been waging and her strength.
“It was a rough weekend,” Tom said Tuesday. “I think she’s just sick of being sick. She’s a lot tougher than I am. I don’t know if I could go through this.”
Tom is currently the interim superintendent in Gibson County and appreciates the school system’s concern for the Millers’ predicament. He is currently working Tuesday through Thursday and spending Saturday through Monday in Indianapolis.
The results of the white blood cell return will determine the next step in this journey for Trish. Tom said that induction chemotherapy is next with either consolidation chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant or skipping chemotherapy and go straight to the transplant if the cancer returns with her new blood cells.
The best match for a bone marrow transplant is usually a sibling. When people share the same mother and father, chances of a successful match are good. For identical twins, the match is almost perfect. Trish’s only full sibling, her brother Ralph Sanders, was killed in Vietnam, eliminating that option.
She’s now counting on the kindness of strangers as doctors search the national bone marrow register for a match.
Friends of the Millers are hosting a bone marrow drive from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at 4 Seasons, in the former Big Blue Store at 2000 State St. Anyone from 18 years old through 60 years old can be a donor.
For those under 18 or who have reached the age of 61 or older, and can’t be donors, there’s another way to help. The tax deductible cost of the test for bone marrow donors at the local drive is $30, with a committee making up the rest of the cost. Those who can’t be donors could help to defray the cost of the test. While a $30 tax-deductible contribution per donor will be greatly appreciated, according to Jenny Richardson, a neighbor of the Millers and one of the drive organizers, no one will be turned away for lack of donation. The test itself couldn’t be easier, including a little paperwork and a simple do-it-yourself cheek swab.
“People asked what they could do,” Trish said. “I thought of Shay Fischer and her knowing that the donor drive wouldn’t help her, but might help others.”
Shay was a North Daviess senior when it was discovered she had leukemia. Her brave fight ended June 2, 2008, at age 19, but her story and strength have been an inspiration to many and a bone marrow donor drive in her name added many to the national bone marrow donor list. Two of those were the Millers, who are now asking others to take that step and possibly help someone they’ve never met.
Trish said she was angry when the diagnosis was first made, but has come to realize that every day “has been such a blessing.
“It makes such a difference living for today. Don’t worry about that blood test tomorrow, just worry about getting through today.”
A member at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church, Trish said she’s asked God to help and He’s helped so much.
Right now the Millers’ goal is to have Trish home for Thanksgiving. It’s possible, according to Tom Miller, depending on the results of the new blood cells. The family includes three children, all graduates of Washington High School. Brandon, lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and works for Southwest Air. He’s the father of the Millers’ oldest grandchild, Zach, 13. Courtney lives in Fishers with her husband Jason Streicher and their daughter Anna, 2 1/2. They are expecting their second child, a son, in February. Whitney lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Sean Threewits. Both Courtney and Whitney have followed in their parents footsteps as they are both teachers.
Speaking of her children, Trish said, “Hopefully, they learned we don’t worry about that (the disease). To me that’s a wasted day.”
The cancer center offers a website CaringBridges.org, where people can contact Trish and follow her progress. She said the messages she’s received have been so uplifting and it is so heartening to know so many are praying for her.
“I can’t thank everybody enough who come out Saturday to help,” Trish said. “Please just keep the prayers going.”