Story by: Dana Matukas on March 14, 2022
Olivia “Liv” Miller was an active toddler and constantly on the go. When she started showing signs of fatigue and generally not being herself, her mother and father took her to their pediatrician in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Olivia had come down with pneumonia along with tonsillitis. The decision was made to remove her tonsils and adenoids. But within a month, she came down with pneumonia again.
“For a toddler to have pneumonia twice in one month gave great concern to both my parents and pediatrician,” Olivia said. “After an MRI, a tumor was found covering 60% of my abdomen.”
A large tumor in the abdomen can interfere with the diaphragm, limiting the lungs’ ability to inflate and increasing the chance of having pneumonia.
Olivia’s parents were in disbelief and shock. After seeking advice from their pediatrician in their Western Kentucky community, they headed to Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, a little over 100 miles away.
After a biopsy, Olivia was diagnosed with stage 3 bilateral anaplastic tumor, also known as Wilms tumor, on May 5, 2005. She was 3 years old.
Wilms tumor is the most common type of kidney cancer in children. Also known as nephroblastoma, it accounts for about 6% of all childhood cancers and originates in kidney cells.
But Olivia’s was different.
“My Wilms tumor was unique and extremely rare, because it was not found inside the kidney,” Olivia said. “It was found outside the walls, attached to organs and my central artery.”
Olivia started a nine-month journey of inpatient chemotherapy at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. Her journey included nine surgeries and a severe infection, which led to a stint in the pediatric intensive care unit for treatment and recovery.
“Thankfully, my mom was a helicopter mom; she wanted to know and understand everything happening,” said Olivia. “She made the visits to the doctor as a ‘get to go’ instead of ‘have to go,’ giving the mindset that it was extra special to visit with the team at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute.”
Olivia still has an appreciation for the staff and volunteers who made it a remarkable place to be when diagnosed with cancer. She recalls that the snack cart always was filled with her favorites, including popcorn, strawberries and mandarin oranges. Child life specialists always included activities for her older sister, who often would come along on visits while their father worked.
“We met so many families enduring similar journeys,” Olivia said. “I made so many friends, friends I still talk with today and several I still mourn the loss of — including my best friend from 7 West at the age of 6. You become a stronger person with a determination to keep pushing for not only yourself but for others.”
Olivia used the informal name — 7 West — for the Addison Jo Blair Cancer Care Center at Norton Children’s Hospital, in recalling her time spent in that section of the hospital.
Now 20, Olivia is a Western Kentucky University student and an executive with Dance Big Red, the annual campus fundraiser that has collected more than $400,000 for Norton Children’s Hospital since 2015.
“My favorite nurse was Terry Bowman, [registered nurse] with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute,” Olivia said. “He is still my favorite nurse to this day. He too endured cancer as a child. Terry gave hope to my parents and inspired my dreams to one day be a nurse at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute.”
The Miller family and Terry have stayed in close contact over the years. Terry recently celebrated 30 years with Norton Children’s. Terry is not contemplating retirement, despite his tenure, because of patients like Olivia.
“I would not consider walking away from my patients; they are all special to me,” Terry said. “Olivia has always been extra special, with her contagious smile and never-ending zest for life. She is always willing to step up to help others.”
After 10 years of being in remission, on June 3, 2015, Olivia was declared cured from her cancer.
Olivia also uses her journey to help others.
“Anytime a patient is newly diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, my mom and I welcome an invite to visit with the family and patient,” Olivia said. “I want to share hope and fight for a cure. I will never forget my last day of chemo and ringing the celebratory bell; all children fighting this disease deserves to ring the bell.”
By hospital tradition, every patient gets to ring a celebratory bell upon completion of their final day of chemo.