SOUTH BEND — Former Nappanee resident Sheri Miller was recently named Susan G. Komen for the Cure Northern Indiana Executive Director — a title she couldn’t be more proud to carry.
The NorthWood graduate, transplanted in South Bend, got involved with the organization when she lived in Indianapolis because she wanted to do something to promote women’s good health.
“I started volunteering for the race,” she said, “though I didn’t have a personal connection to breast cancer. I just thought it was a really good organization and was something I could help with and right out of college (with degrees in political science and philosophy from Ball State) I really wanted to get out and get involved … I wanted to do something that made a difference.”
Twenty years later she is still “doing something” and has assisted with Susan G. Komen’s Rave for the Cure races in both Indianapolis and Washington D.C. serving in any avenue from planning, helping with the media, assisting with registration for the race, to setting up and cleaning up. She also spent the first years of her career in Indianapolis working in state government, including as the executive assistant to the First Lady of Indiana and special projects director for two Indiana attorney generals. Before finding her way “home” in 2005, Sheri spent time working on the east coast and in South Dakota, serving as political assistant for a national association and political director for U.S. Senator Tim Johnson. Most recently Sheri served as the director of public policy for The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, where she has been since 2006.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Northern Indiana affiliate began in 2006 and a friend (Maggie Kernan) asked her to get even more involved by joining in the grants committee.
“Then in 2007 the first volunteer board started raising money for the affiliate and were able to give the first round of grants out,” Miller explained. “That was really when I saw what kind of impact we could make. We had the affiliate’s first race and continued to grow but didn’t feel we were making a big enough impact. The thought was, if we wanted to really spread our mission and grow our impact on breast health we needed to focus on education, so the board made the decision that hiring an executive director would be the best way to do that.”
Susan G. Komen for the Cure awarded more than $100 million in research grants last year, representing the largest single-year investment in research in the organization’s 26-year history. “The amazing thing that I saw this organization does is for that every dollar raised, 75 cents stays in the community and 25 cents of that dollar goes directly to research for finding a cure,” Miller explained. “What we’re really about is finding a cure. What they’ve (Susan B. Komen for the Cure) been able to do at the national level is funding all kinds of research for all kinds of cancer, from creating chemotherapy drugs to finding … maybe not something that will help with breast cancer … but during research for trying to cure it finding something that helps fight another type of cancer. It’s truly amazing.”
And truly widespread. The organization has 122 affiliates in the United States, the Northern Indiana group the largest, covering 27 counties in Indiana, stretching from east to west bordered by Ohio and Illinois respectively. Michigan serves as the northern border and the southern border zigzags along the southern borders of Benton, White, Carroll, Cass, Miami, Wabash, Huntington, Wells and Adams counties.
“Funding has assisted with offering pre-screenings and mammographies to the uninsured or the underinsured,” she said. “It’s given care packages and recovery packages to women that have just gone through a mastectomy surgery and benefits continue to being able to offer bilingual services to the Latina and Hispanic communities.”
It has also funded mammograms given in mobile medical units, counseling for new breast cancer patients, diagnostic services, and provided mammograms to women younger than 40 years of age.
Miller explained that her personal cause for finding the cure became even more determined shortly after becoming engaged.
“I got engaged the first week of April and the first week of May I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “Most of 2008 and through part of 2009 I was fighting my own battle, but after that I decided I was going to make a real commitment to helping others fight this disease. I believe in the mission and think they are putting the money where their mouth is and really are trying to make an impact. As the E.D., what a great way for me to not only be able to help other women but help women from where I live!”
She said upon finding out her diagnosis the normal thoughts came such as “what’s going on here?” and “why me?”
“But after that first shock I realized I was very fortunate because I had this tremendous support system of family,” Miller shared. “I sat my fiance down after about a week after hearing I had this, and told him: ‘you didn’t sign up for this, so if you want out, now is the time.’ He looked at me like I was nuts. We got married the summer of 2009.”
The kind of cancer Miller had, inflammatory breast cancer, is rare. Only one in five types of breast cancer is this kind and it is the most difficult to realize and one of the most aggressive. Fighting it meant undergoing six neoadjuvant chemotherapy treatments, a bi-lateral modified radical mastectomy, 33 radiation treatments and an additional 11 Herceptin-targeted therapy treatments.
“We were all taught as women to have a mammogram after we turn 40,” Miller said. “I was 37. We hear that we are to feel for lumps or discoloration. I had no lumps. My cancer affected the entire breast tissue. We just weren’t given a thorough education. I thought: ‘people need to know this!’”
She said that educating the diverse population in her specific affiliate’s area is a challenge she plans to strongly take on.
“We have a really big region and we have very large African American communities and a heavily Amish community in Elkhart and LaGrange and Noble counties and in Allen County, we have the highest number of Burmese women outside of Burma,” Miller explained. “All of these population groups are the ones with the highest number of fatalities from breast cancer. It’s a combination of the lack of insurance, lack of communication and lack of access to medical care. Early diagnosis is so critical at being able to beat this disease.”
She said women should trust themselves and their gut instincts regardless of their age or what they find in a self-exam, and no matter what their doctor says.
“I had four doctors tell me nothing was wrong,” she said. “I was at stage 3B when I found out. A lot of times this type isn’t found until it’s stage 4. You have to trust yourself and know your body. No, we’re not medical professionals but if that inner voice is telling you something is wrong, listen to it. Have it checked out … again and again if you have to.”
Under the new title of Executive Director, Miller Story will be responsible for directing Komen’s mission in Northern Indiana representing the affiliate to the public, policy makers and community organizations. She will lead organizational development and strategic planning, provide guidance to volunteers and committees, provide direction in event development, optimize financial performance, build donor relationships, oversee personnel and impact public policy.
Komen Northern Indiana also hosts three annual Survivor Luncheons in Merrillville, South Bend and Fort Wayne. These luncheons are complimentary for survivors and their guest and are an opportunity for breast cancer survivors to celebrate life and honor those that have lost their battle with the disease.
As well as fighting the good fight Miller serves on the boards for the YWCA of North Central Indiana, Women Business Owners of Michiana (WBOM), and the Sunnymeade Neighborhood Association. She and her husband Doug are empty-nesters with a daughter living and working in Denver, Colo. and a son at the University of Oklahoma completing his degree in accounting and serving as a leader in OU’s U.S. Army ROTC program.
For more information on Komen Northern Indiana or Susan G. Komen for the Cure® or to become involved, email: firstname.lastname@example.org; visit http://www.komennorthernindiana.org;  or call the office at 574-289-9828 in the South Bend area or 877-456-6636 outside it.