Article image

by Laura S Jones

December 31, 2008

Back in the water after cancer

On Friday, April 13 at the Oregon Masters Short Course Meters Championship, Nancy Milner swam a 1500 in 29:55.15. She was in Lane 4 of Heat 1. In the other lanes of her heat were six of her closest friends. Often Masters swimmers find themselves competing against friends. But this wasn’t a competition. It was a well-orchestrated celebration. Meet director Sandi Rousseau did the special seeding to ensure that Milner would be surrounded by her friends for her triumphal return to competition. Milner, 60, had been a little busy fighting multiple myeloma, a serious form of cancer. She hadn’t swum in a meet since 2009, and 2008 was the last time she swam the 1500.

“It felt really good to be able to swim that mile, and it was really nice to have people I have been swimming with for almost thirty years next to me,” says Milner. “I have wonderful friends.”

Her team is Oregon Reign Masters, and within that group is Mt. Hood Masters, a close knit group of swimmers who have spent the past 30 years sharing lanes. The swimmers in Milner's heat were: Kristi Gustafson, Ron Nakata, Linda Bley, Buz Carriker, Carole Miles, and Lynn Thompson.

When Milner was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010 after breaking several ribs sneezing, it was in over 95% of her bones. Multiple myeloma is cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow; it causes those plasma cells to grow out of control and form tumors in the areas of solid bone. Multiple myeloma is very painful and also causes anemia, which makes a person more likely to get infections and have abnormal bleeding. In fact Milner received over 100 units of blood in two years.

After chemotherapy and radiation in 2010, the cancer had not abated. In January of 2011, Milner went to Seattle for treatment where she received an autologous bone marrow transplant which makes use of the patient’s own stem cells. She returned home in July 2011 and by January 2012, she was deemed cancer free. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I feel like I have a new lease on life I didn’t expect to have.” This past spring was the first she has enjoyed in three years. “I feel like a little kid seeing it for the first time.”

She suffers many consequences of her illness, including compression fractures of several vertebrae and a hip joint that looks “likes Pac Man took a bite out of it.” But she manages the pain with yoga and, of course, swimming. Ironically, after she was released, the doctors told her she could do everything but swim. “I told the doctors swimming is in my DNA,” and they relented. She had to wait for her port to heal, but by the fall of 2011, she was back in the water. At first she swam “not very much and not very fast” But it isn’t about speed she said. “It’s about being in the water.” By January of 2012, her body was making its own blood again, and regionals were coming up. She knew she wanted to race again.

When Milner set a goal of swimming the mile, her friends “just thought this [special heat] would be the thing to do. People said they’d never seen a heat have so much fun. Everyone stayed right next to me. We didn’t set any records, but it was so cool.”

Her friends have nothing but praise for Milner as a swimmer and as a person. Carole Miles says “Nancy did a fabulous job. The announcer read her story during the swim and she got quite the standing ovation when she finished - I could tell even though I was still swimming!” Dianne Viales adds: “When Nancy told me she would swim the mile again someday, I must admit that while I promised to count for her when she did, I was very doubtful! Nancy is a truly amazing inspiration in so many ways.” Linda Bley believes Milner’s “[f]aith that it would get better carried her through, right to the moment she jumped into the pool.”

Pam Baker, Milner’s partner and a former Masters swimmer herself says of Milner: “Nancy is one of the most generous and loving people I have ever known. That is part of the reason that when she got sick she ended up with such a huge support group. She never gave up hope, was an inspiration to people she met in treatment, and continues to be a bright light on this earth.”

Mt. Hood Masters Coach and Oregon Reign Masters Assistant Coach Dawn Markell adds her take on Milner and her teammates: “[They are] the most amazing, warm, supportive group of people you could ever know, and Nancy is right at the heart of it. When Nancy was diagnosed with cancer I don’t believe cancer knew what it was up against! In practice, Nancy is focused and competitive. We can also count on Nancy to challenge us to “just one more” swim at the end of practice that is, of course, a race. Out of the pool Nancy has the most infectious laugh and presence. It was amazing to watch Nancy in her first event back with her team by her side, stroke for stroke.”

Milner wants people to know that to her, Oregon Reign Masters and USMS are about “friendship, extended family, fun and fitness. It's about swimming and competition but much more than that. When my Mt Hood Master's friend said she needed a barn we built [her a barn]. I also have the best friends in the world. When I got sick they did everything for my partner Pam and I…I did not have to worry about anything except getting better. I was very sick and not expected to live. I think because I am a swimmer and was strong physically because of that I was able to survive treatment. One of my goals is to live a few more years and spend time with my partner, kids, and grandkids. Hopefully I can inspire them to ‘be all they can be.’ I want to enjoy time with my friends and continue to be supportive of them as well.”

USMS exists to support its swimmers, and we love to share stories of swimmers doing the same for each other!


  • Human Interest