On her latest wedding anniversary, Marissa Miller had a port inserted into her chest so she would not have to have new intravenous injections in her arms.
“That was a good gift to get,” she said.
When you have cancer, you look for positives, and reducing the number of times you get poked with a needle is one of them, Miller said.
The 33-year-old Brookfield woman and Brookfield Middle School teacher discovered a lump on her left side while doing a self exam on June 9.
“I didn’t have such a great feeling about it and went and got checked out at the Joanie Abdu (Comprehensive Breast Care) Center,” she said.
The diagnosis: triple-negative breast cancer. It’s the same type that killed Adrienne Litman-Toth, and Miller’s story has become so entwined with Toth’s that Miller considers Toth a guardian angel who will see her through to a positive conclusion.
“It’s so weird that two people from the same town end up with this really wicked, wicked cancer,” Miller said.
Miller did not know Toth well, but Toth’s father, John Litman, was Miller’s basketball coach, and she knew Litman’s sons, who often came to practice.
Miller was aware of Toth’s story and, because of Toth telling women to perform breast self exams, Miller became religious about conducting them.
“I told her dad, if and when I survive this, it’s because of her,” Miller said of Toth.
Miller is undergoing chemotherapy and taking several drugs, including Keytruda.
“When I talked with Coach Litman, that was the hard call to take because he asked if I was getting that drug (Keytruda),” Miller said. “That was in trials when Adrienne was going all through her stuff and he fought to get that for her, tried to do everything to get that for her, and he couldn’t. He was very happy that I was getting it.”
Brookfield High School teacher Jessica Gardner, who was diagnosed with another form of breast cancer in 2017, has been a “saving grace,” Miller said.
“It’s nice to have another big sister,” Miller said. “She’s been really supportive, sends me stuff in the mail, texting me, checking in on me. When I need something and if I have questions, she’s my go-to. She invited me to her Facebook group, and there’s tons of women on there. It’s just great to have one more person I can connect with, because nobody around you understands it until you actually go through it.”
Miller said she was surprised when her student, Aeryn Berena, showed up one day with a gift pack, including a blanket and gift cards that she and other students had assembled.
“That was such a big surprise, because I’m not used to people doing for me, or asking for help,” Miller said. “I’m one that tends to do everything myself.”
The blanket, which Miller takes to her drug therapy sessions, is decorated with lightning bolts on one side to power her up, Miller said Aeryn told her, and hearts on the other side to remind her of the love that surrounds her.
“That’s been one of the most endearing things about this, all the help and support,” Miller said. “My parents, his (husband Ryan’s) parents, all our friends. They set up that meal train for us, and we just have people coming out of the woodwork bringing us food, jumping in to do different things.”
One of the gift cards was for Rita’s Italian Ice, and Miller said she is now hooked on Rita’s.
“I get really, really thirsty and real dehydrated (from drug therapy) – that’s the only thing I want, is Rita’s, Rita’s, Rita’s, Rita’s,” Miller said. “We go almost every day.”
Miller and Ryan, have a 3-year-old son, Ryker, and they have been careful about the information they give him.
“He knows something’s wrong,” Miller said. “He has to hold my hand everywhere we go. I just tell him, ‘Mommy’s not feeling well.’ He’s real good. He’ll cuddle with me, he’ll hug on me. I show him my scars. He knows. I think he can sense that I’m sad some days.”
They also try to give Ryker a little space when he gets frustrated about what’s going on, she said.
“Just try to explain to him that mommy is sick, mommy’s not feeling well, I got ‘ows,’” she said. “I think he really understands.”
Miler plans to return to teaching when school opens Sept. 5, and she knows there will be questions. Even students who do not know she has cancer will see that she has chopped off her long locks. Depending on her mood, she might have a design inscribed into the side of her head.
“I don’t want to freak out any of the kids, because, when they see me, they’re gonna be like, ‘Mrs. Miller, you’re really hardcore. You’re tough,’” she said.
She doesn’t want to hide things from the students, she said.
“I’m more wanting to be open and honest with everybody, what’s going on, just tell them what’s happening,” Miller said. “I think when the kids see my demeanor and how strong I am, it’s just one more hurdle that I have to overcome, they’ll be OK. I think seeing the kids will kind of distract me a little more too.”
During the school year, she’ll have a bilateral mastectomy, a decision that arose from genetic testing she undertook after her diagnosis.
“I tested positive for one gene, PALB2, which puts you at risk for developing breast cancer, and 5 percent chance of pancreatic,” she said.
“When it’s working normal, it’s job is to tell the body to fight cancer cells,” Ryan Miller said of the suspect gene. “When it mutates, it stops. That’s pretty much what happened. Kind of let them run rampant for a little bit until they figured it out.”
Toth encouraged that people get genetic testing done.
“I wish I would have listened to her (Toth) back then, but you always think, ‘Ah, it’s not gonna happen to me, because I’m pretty active, pretty healthy,’” Marissa Miller said.
As she fights cancer, Miller will pick up Toth’s mantle and encourage women – and men, who also can get breast cancer – to perform self-exams and get genetic testing done. She has formed Marissa’s Militia – patterned after Adrienne’s Army, a nonprofit set up by Toth and Litman families – to attend cancer-awareness events such as Panerathon.
She noted that she received instruction on breast self-exams in 2021 from Dr. Nancy Gantt, a surgeon who has survived breast cancer twice and saw Miller when Miller had a cyst examined.
“We had a wedding and I was at the salon getting my hair all chopped off and I taught the whole salon how to do (self exams),” Miller said. “My job doesn’t end as a teacher.”