By Veronica Cardenas Kids get stomachaches, and Athena Miller was no different.
“Growing pains,” everyone explained.
But the pain continued and grew worse for the 11-year-old girl from Arcadia, Calif. The culprit: a tumor in one of her ovaries that had grown to 2 ½ pounds and was the size of a grapefruit. She was rushed to City of Hope, where doctors removed the tumor along with a fallopian tube.
Patient Athena Miller, left, listens as Smart & Final executive Kent Kuwata speaks. (Photo by Thomas Brown)
In the span of a few weeks in 2006, she went from dancing and singing lessons to having to grapple with cancer. As a young girl, she was confused and did not entirely understand what was happening to her. She knew, though, that she needed surgery — and that City of Hope would take care of her.
“My doctor at City of Hope, Dr. Clark Anderson, was very reassuring and helped me and my family through this tough time,” said Miller.
Anderson told her the cancer had likely been there since her birth and had slowed her growth, she said, but “he made me feel safe and told me that everything was going to be okay.”
Now 16 years old, Miller shared her story with executives at the annual Southern California Food Industries Circle Produce and Floral Luncheon in August in Cerritos, Calif. Industry members were touched by her experience, but none more than Smart & Final executive Kent Kuwata.
Kuwata was so moved that he immediately donated to City of Hope to support cancer research — and, one by one, those around him began writing checks as well. They raised $15,500 as a tribute to her.
“Athena’s heart-wrenching story moves your soul. Having two daughters of my own, I could imagine the impact cancer has on the entire family,” Kuwata said. “I am proud of Athena’s bravery fighting cancer and of her character in sharing her story openly.
“After she finished her tale of triumph I knew I had to give something back to her. I’ve always known the produce and floral industries to be filled with wonderful and caring people. They proved me right with their generosity.”
Miller watched in amazement as the supporters donated. “I started to cry; I couldn’t believe he would do that for me,” she said.
The story has an especially happy ending. After a few weeks of recovery, Miller was able to return to school, and because her germ cell teratoma tumor had been removed completely, she needed no radiation or chemotherapy treatment. As a precaution, Miller receives routine imaging scans and blood tests and continues to be in good health today.
“The support and care I received at City of Hope is something I will never forget,” she said. “With the tumor removed, my body is finally starting to catch up. I am happy to say that I finally made it to 100 pounds. In fact, I am 104 pounds and 5-feet-4-inches tall.”