A pale blue bird tips its head toward a spray of pink flowers, reaching for what must be a delicate, sweet smell. Brown branches drip fuchsia petals in winding strands down into a blue-sea sky. Feathery green leaves spill like raindrops in the background, all on a 24-by-18-inch canvas that she envisions from her chair by the bay window in the third-story flat.
Sharon Rose Miller (EMBA ’92) sits with brush in hand, poised close to the easel, and imagines beauty. Light, breath, life, joy. Her painting is a delicate whisper. A voice searching for its universal chorus.
Nights are long and sleepless. Food does not taste as good as it should. Her limbs don’t respond efficiently to the signals from her brain. But her mind and soul soldier on.
Sharon Rose is dying of cancer.
Through writing, she accuses cancer head on, and through painting, Sharon skates beyond and above the disease that will kill her on December 12, 2004.
“I will never forget the moment I was told I had cancer. Ever. No one ever does. Space becomes still and time stops. When a person hears CANCER, the brain shuts down. You go into shock mode. Everything you know in life to be true is shattered and will NEVER, EVER be the same. EVER.”
In a series of journals and writings that she left behind, Sharon opens a window onto the fears and the discoveries of one bright, successful person who unexpectedly confronts death. In her case, through a rare form of breast cancer.
Sharon graduated second in her class of 40 from Notre Dame’s Executive MBA program in South Bend in 1992. A self-described “type A+++++ person,” she had graduated from nursing school and would convert that career into a pharmaceutical sales representative position. After putting herself through Notre Dame’s program, she went on to become an eight-state regional manager in specialty neurology at Merck and Company with the 80-hour-weeks and comfortable six-figure salary that went along with that.
“I worked hard (driven some would say). I put myself though nursing school, management business school, and ultimately obtained my MBA from Notre Dame. It was one of my proudest moments and the two hardest years of my life, since I was working full time and managed to graduate second in a very competitive class of 35 men and 5 women.”
Sharon was also a tremendous mentor, friends say. She always had a vision and a plan to get herself and her team where they needed to go, says Laura Johnson, who worked with Sharon at Bristol-Myers Squibb in the early 1990s. And she was “able to then step back and kind of high-five somebody and say, ‘oh that was awesome, didn’t that feel great?’”
“Before Cancer (BC), my life made sense,” Sharon writes. “I worked hard. I studied hard … I was rewarded with three degrees, and I now had a fulfilling, exciting, high-profile career.”
A tall woman with blonde hair to her shoulders, Sharon attracted attention when she walked by. Her startling white smile revealed a ready laugh and her athletic figure paid tribute to her years as an aerobics instructor, triathlete, and tennis player. Friends describe her as “gorgeous” and “vivacious” and “beautiful.” Before being diagnosed at age 36, she’d been the picture of health.
Within three years, she had two mastectomies and “bright red scars that stretched from hip to hip.” She had undergone chemotherapy, estrogen treatments, radiation, hyperthermia, experimental treatments and more. Still the inflammatory breast cancer continued to spread throughout her body.
“I had back spasms, migraine headaches and thinning hair. I experienced fatigue so intense, I could barely stand long enough to take a shower. Heartburn, indigestion, gas pains and unbearable constipation were constant reminders of the damage being done to my body. My palms and soles of my feet became red, cracked and so sensitive that tepid water would cause pain … I can attest the slash, burn, and poison method of treating cancer is alive and well.”
Before getting sick, Sharon had been married for 10 years. A common experience among young women with breast cancer and others who are seriously or terminally ill are the painful and unpredictable reactions of some family members and friends. Sharon and her husband divorced.
Originally, the doctors gave Sharon two years, at the outside, to live. Whether through self-will, courage, desire, good medical care, faith, or a combination of all of these, Sharon went on to live nearly seven years after finding that first lump in her breast.
“Cancer became my new, and closest, companion for the next six plus years of my life. My new friend was with me every moment, every step, most every thought, and always my nighttime companion, keeping me up at all hours of the night. Telling me horror stories of what could, would, should happen to me as my new companion slowly destroyed my healthy body. Will I be cured? Will cancer come back? Will the cancer kill me? Will my death be slow and painful? These were the questions posed to me every single night by (my) new cancer companion.”
So, in the face of this, the question became how to live. Whether days, or months, or years—how to spend the time.
A Turning Point
“I think she stopped and took a deep breath and really assessed her life,” says friend Sally Wolcott. “I think there were some pretty dark lonely nights. It’s like going deep into the place inside you and finding it wasn’t empty…but that she really had a deep reservoir of strength.”
Sally, a breast cancer survivor, is sitting at a table under a turquoise sign that reads “ Crowley’s Boat Yard.” This is where she works, and she encouraged Sharon to become involved with sailing. She adjusts her maroon-rimmed glasses, her face framed in short-cropped graying hair. Sally met Sharon in 1997, becoming acquainted at a newly formed Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization support group for young women in the Chicago area.
“I think that Sharon had felt like up to that point... career was everything, and when you are dealing with a potentially life-threatening diagnosis in your 30s...you have an opportunity to reexamine your priorities and I think we both did that,” Sally says.
Sharon also was determined to have fun. She wore short skirts, beautiful blouses and fun jewelry to go out to dinner, even though she had to wear bandages underneath. She discovered she loved long, sparkly dresses. She read Chicago magazine and wrote down the best restaurants in town, vowing to try them all, and she planned a trip to Italy. She encouraged other women to explore and enjoy life, too.
Sharon began to work a hotline that other women diagnosed with breast cancer could call to get information. In addition to attending Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization support group meetings, she led them and eventually served on the board of the Illinois chapter.
“We talked about treatments, side effects, sexuality, dating, wanting children, and raising children. I no longer felt engulfed in loneliness.”
She also began speaking publicly about young women and breast cancer, made training videos for residents and doctors, and provided interviews to CNN and other media.
“It was always about somebody else and how she could help them and what she could do to turn their lives around and let them know that they’re not out there alone,” says Mary Long, a colleague who worked with Sharon earlier at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Mary ironically was diagnosed with a debilitating disease a few years after Sharon was.
“ Sharon had told me many times that we never know how much good we do for a person,” says Margaret Kirk, CEO of Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization. “She said every smile, every comforting word, every card, every phone call means so much.”
In time, Sharon also met and got married to John Crumley.
“At the time in my life when I felt the most undesirable, I met a wonderful, handsome, loving man who became my fiancé! For the first time in my life I was loved unconditionally. I came to understand that true love is not about your figure, your breasts or how much money your latest promotion brings.”
Painting and Writing
After surrendering her job at Merck and giving up tennis and eventually giving in to John’s carrying her up and down the three flights of stairs to their flat, Sharon picked up a paint brush.
Art had been something she’d always liked as a kid. Something she admired. “But she hadn’t pursued it because it wasn’t, you know, practical,” Sally says. “Like, why do you need to have this creative expression?...It is my opinion that she was very much just in the germination stages of becoming an artist.”
A week before what would have been their one-year anniversary, John walks around the spacious third-floor Chicago flat they shared, the hardwood floors spattered with crooked shadows cast by the leafy trees outside. Sharon died five months after they were married.
“She was just very sincere and you could talk to her about anything,” John says.
The wall down the long yellow hallway is hung with paintings, one after the other, of bright flowers. He points to different ones, explaining that she would sit at an easel near the front window. She had painted for less than two years.
According to Sally, “I think that she really, really wanted to leave a footprint, leave something behind, and the writing and the painting were both ways to do that.”
Mary, a bright-eyed mother struggling with her own illness, reflected on their friendship.
“She was passionate about life and she showed it,” Mary says. “And she shared it. And if there is anything you can learn from Sharon, it’s that life is not about tomorrow, but how you live today.
“Don’t ever give up. She was truly a fighter and that’s probably what still has me going now. It’s easy to quit. Very easy to quit. In anything in life. Whether it’s your job situation or dealing with illness. Don’t ever give up.”
—Rachel Reynolds is the Director of Feature Writing at the Mendoza College of Business and managing editor of Notre Dame Business