MARYVILLE, Ill. – After being diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer and told she wouldn’t live past 30, a Maryville, Illinois woman beat it and then nearly died while giving birth. Andrea Miller is celebrating her 45th birthday on Sunday, July 24.
“I live life to the fullest now,” Miller said.
Even though she works from home as a business analyst for Express Scripts, Miller works fun jobs when she has time, like selling 50/50 raffle tickets for the St. Louis Blues, and bartending and waiting tables at Failoni’s on Manchester Avenue and at Babe’s Tavern on Ivanhoe Avenue.
“So getting out and doing those other jobs, that’s my social, that’s my time to interact with other adults,” she said.
In 2003, Miller was 25 and had gallstones. She had an ultrasound on her gallbladder and doctors took the opportunity to check her other organs. They discovered she only had one kidney. Miller had no idea and neither did her mother.
She married in October that year. In fall of 2004, she had a CAT scan to find out more. She learned she has a congenital birth defect where she’s missing a right kidney, a right ovary, and a right fallopian tube.
Not only did the CAT scan confirm Miller’s congenital disability, but it also showed a mass near her stomach. She went in for a biopsy and doctors found a cancerous mass. A follow-up PET scan revealed that the cancer was in her stomach, esophagus, liver, and lymph nodes. Miller was just 27. Doctors told her Miller it was unlikely she’d make it to 30.
Just before Miller was diagnosed with cancer, her father-in-law was diagnosed with leukemia.
“It was difficult for both of us, being so young and newly married. Never in a million years did we think we would be facing that so early in our marriage,” she said.
At the time, Miller was a loan processor for State Farm and had only been with the company for six months. Her husband also worked there.
“It was a very very family-like atmosphere. People rallied around us,” Miller said. “They actually paid me throughout my entire treatments.”
She went through treatments for two years at Siteman Cancer Center. She had chemotherapy from December 2004 to April 2005. In October 2005, the tumors in her liver were gone. Her oncologist then sent her to the surgeons. In November of 2006, she had an esophagectomy with a gastric pull-through. They removed the top third of her stomach and most of her esophagus, pulled her stomach up into her chest to reattach it to her esophagus, and then removed seven of her lymph nodes. She was told she could be in the hospital for up to three months after the surgery, but she was there for 13 days.
The surgery did not remove all the cancer outside her stomach. After recovering, she went through 5.5 weeks of daily radiation and more chemotherapy. Then she was cancer-free.
“I was told I had a miraculous recovery,” Miller said.
Throughout her cancer journey, she and her husband would go to the Melting Pot after every CAT scan.
“We would go the day that I had it, and then it seemed like I used to get good results,” Miller said. The couple celebrated Andrea’s positive news by going there once again.
At no point did she believe she wouldn’t make it to 30.
“That’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave my husband. I’m not going to leave my parents. I’m not going to do that mentality,” Miller said. “I will tell anyone going through cancer, you have to have a positive attitude.”
In 2007 she got pregnant with her son, Reid. At 32 weeks pregnant, Miller was in the hospital for one week. Then she was put on bed rest, but she delivered with no complications at 37 weeks on May 16, 2008, and went home two days later.
It was with her second son, Holt, in 2012 that she had major complications. Based on Miller’s first pregnancy, she was very excited that she made it to 32 weeks without any issues, but at 33 weeks she didn’t feel well. Her doctor told her to rest and take ibuprofen which was part of her regimen for preterm labor. For a few days, she was able to manage her pain this way. Then she woke up in a tremendous amount of pain.
“I knew I wasn’t in labor, but I knew the pain that I was having was not right,” Miller said.
Then she, her husband, and Reid packed up and went to Missouri Baptist where her high-risk OB was. When they arrived at 7 a.m., Miller was unable to walk on her own. This time was also a shift change at the hospital. So when the family got to labor and delivery, no one was at the registration desk, but a nurse, Amy Abbate, looked at her, stepped forward, and said “I’ll take her.” Miller and Abbate are good friends to this day.
Miller’s body temperature was at 92.3 and she was septic, but the doctors weren’t sure why.
“I’m deteriorating, and it’s causing the baby to become distressed,” Miller recalled.
Holt was born seven weeks premature via an emergency c-section and rushed off to the NICU. While Miller was still on the operating table, she went into respiratory arrest. Then a code blue was called meaning she was no longer responsive. She was intubated and placed on life support.
A CAT scan showed her diaphragm had ruptured and her small intestine herniated into her chest, causing her lung to collapse and putting pressure on her heart.
“I should have been transferred to Barnes but I was critical unstable and couldn’t be moved,” Miller said.
She was taken back for surgery at Missouri Baptist and Miller is still thankful to her OB who stayed in the operating room as an observer and came out to brief her family periodically. Once surgeons opened Miller up, they found that the intestine that had gone into her chest cavity was dead. Surgeons repaired her diaphragm, reinflated her lung, and removed 85% of her small intestine. The average adult has 900 cm of small intestine. Miller now has 139 cm.
Following surgery, she was on life support for 12 hours. At that point, doctors weren’t sure if Miller was going to be able to eat on her own ever again. They also had expected her to stay at the hospital for three months, but she was there for two weeks.
Holt was born on April 1, 2012.
“His birthday is no joke,” Miller said.
One week after going home, Holt came home.
“We are so fortunate to have such excellent health care in St. Louis. I owe both those hospitals and all those doctors so much,” Miller said. “I know the names of all the doctors; whether it be through my cancer, my oncologists, my surgeons, to the nurses and doctors at MoBap.”
She said it’s possible that the surgery she had at the end of her cancer treatment played a part in the emergency she had while giving birth to Holt. Following his birth, she spoke to the surgeon that did her esophagectomy with a gastric pull-through. That surgeon said “it was done in a way that would have left room for the shifting of the organs.” So when she was pregnant with Reid, “things got shifted around, moved, pushed, all of that, and then with the second one it moved and pushed so much that it caused the space that was left around the diaphragm to rupture.”
Eight months after Holt was born, Miller and her husband separated. They are now divorced.
“I have no ill feelings toward him,” she said. “We both experienced the same thing, but we experienced it in very different ways. So for him it was, I’ve had to watch you almost die twice, and for me it’s oh my gosh, I’ve overcome almost dying twice. The second one was just too much.”
Miller has lived 18 years past her diagnosis date and she has been cancer free for 15.
Reid will be a freshman this fall at Triad High School. He’s on the Triad High School hockey team and also plays baseball. Holt will be in fifth grade and he plays soccer and hockey.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Miller said.