Kathy Miller has never tied a pink ribbon in her daughter’s hair.
Pink ribbons make her mad, you see. It’s not that she
doesn’t like the color pink, or ribbons for that matter.
But Miller, the Ballvé Lantero Professor of Oncology at Indiana University School of Medicine and the associate director of clinical research at the IU Simon Cancer Center, is one of the nation’s leading oncologists. As such, her main occupation in life is ending breast cancer. Pink ribbons remind her that she hasn’t yet worked her way out of a job.
“I can’t put a pink ribbon in her hair without thinking of
the mothers I’ve taken care of who are no longer with us, mothers who can’t put
pink ribbons in their daughters’ hair,” Miller said. “As her mother, that makes
That anger aside, Miller sees hope. After more than 20 years of researching and treating breast cancer in the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research, Miller knows how far breast cancer treatment has progressed. The advances coming in the next 20 years? Miller is busy imagining the possibilities.
Small Town, Big Dreams
Miller was raised in Florida—Florida, Ohio. It’s a town of
fewer than 300 people in the northwestern part of the state—the kind of place
where everybody knows everybody.
From the time she was 5 years old, Miller knew she wanted to
be a doctor. Through a child’s lens, Miller was fascinated by a doctor’s
ability to restore a patient’s health. No one in her family had ever gone to
college, but her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams.
They were so dedicated to this pledge they decided to have
only two children to make college more affordable. “I never felt pressure to go to college—it
just always seemed like a given.”
Miller made good on the wishes of her parents. In 1981, she
enrolled at the University of Miami. Her sister Michelle started college at the
General Motors Institute before transferring to the University of California,
Berkeley, graduating with an engineering degree. She’s now a principal at
Hexagon Transportation in San Jose, California.
A biology major, Miller thrived at Miami. With a nudge from
her advisor, she applied to medical school at the Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine. Her interview with Dr. James Jude, a Miami thoracic surgeon
who is credited as being one of the three “fathers” of CPR, was so impressive
he invited Miller to scrub in for surgery following the interview.
Finding Her Future
As a medical student at Johns Hopkins, she discovered just
what kind of doctor she would be in her second year, listening to back-to-back
talks on leukemia and lymphoma by pathologist Risa Mann.
“My ability to pay attention in lectures at that point
topped out at about 45 minutes,” Miller said. “This one was twice as long, and
I was completely captivated.”
Time in the lab of a pediatric oncologist Andrew Yeager investigating
leukemia opened her eyes to the complexities and opportunities that existed for
physician-scientists. “He showed me how the problems you see in patients can
stimulate questions that can be investigated in the lab, and how insights in
the lab can lead to clinical trials that can be tested in patients. There is an
incredible synergy between those two that I just find so exciting.”
A Return to the Midwest
After medical school, her husband Jeff, with a PhD in
education, accepted a position at the University of Illinois. Miller looked for
a fellowship destination in the region and found IU School of Medicine.
George Sledge, MD, IU’s first breast oncologist and the
physician who laid the foundation for the breast cancer program at Indiana
University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer, saw Miller’s brilliance on display
early during her IU fellowship.
Her aptitude for both clinical work and research made her
stand out among her peers, Sledge said. She co-published papers with colleagues
and made a name for herself at the school. In 1997, she served as chief fellow
during her training at IU.
“As much as just about anyone I know, Kathy is the complete
package,” Sledge said of Miller. “Being equally competent at research and in
the clinic is not something everyone is capable of. But Kathy thrives in both
Miller points to Sledge as a mentor, but he says that title
is no longer fitting.
“I certainly was her mentor at one point, but Kathy has long
since surpassed that,” said Sledge, now at Stanford University. “Now, of
course, she is my colleague and my friend. Kathy is flat out brilliant.”
Supercharging Breast Cancer Research
After her fellowship, Miller and her husband moved to North
Dakota, where Jeff had accepted a position. But Sledge was so keen to bring her
back to IU, he made a trek out to plead his case.
“I flew up to Fargo—in theory to give a lecture at a local
medical center. But mostly I was there to beg a lot,” Sledge said. “I have told
people that it may be that my greatest contribution to the field of breast
cancer was to haul Kathy Miller back from Fargo and get her working on clinical
Miller returned to IU School of Medicine in 1999. Quickly,
her prowess as a physician-scientist helped solidify the school’s standing as a
world leader in breast cancer research. Now directing clinical research at the
Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research, Miller has also
ascended to leadership roles within the university and on a national stage. She
is writing and directing national clinical trials, serving on the National
Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Steering Committee.
As much as just about anyone I know, Kathy is the complete package. Being equally competent at research and in the clinic is not something everyone is capable of. But Kathy thrives in both settings.
George W. Sledge, MD
“If you live in a state like Indiana and you have a Kathy
Miller that means—because of her exceptional talents as a clinical
translational researcher—you are one of the first people in the country who has
access to new potentially lifesaving drugs,” Sledge said. “You need talented
researchers to move the field forward. Having a Kathy Miller supercharges a
program and allows you to do lots of things you would otherwise not be able to
These days, much of Miller’s clinical research is focused on improving outcomes for patients with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type of breast cancer that lacks common traits used to diagnose and treat most other breast cancers. She’s attempting to identify new drug targets and combination therapies.
“Without clinical trials we would have no new cancer
therapies. That means accepting that what we have right now to offer patients
is the best we’ll ever have. And I can’t accept that,” Miller said. “There is
an incredible excitement, as a researcher, to be the first one to see promising
results, and to design a clinical experiment to test them. That part of this
job never gets old for me.”
Head for Science, Heart for Healing
One of the hardest parts of the job is having a difficult
conversation with patients. When she was younger, Miller was convinced that if
she could find just the right way to deliver the devastating news of a cancer
diagnosis “nobody would get upset, nobody would cry, and it would all be OK.”
“That’s totally stupid,” Miller said.
Instead, she speaks to patients honestly and simply, with
compassion and clarity. “And then shut up and let them have whatever reaction
they need to have.”
Learning how to deliver difficult news is a key part of
training for any young physician. It is why Miller always brings learners from
her clinic with her for those conversations.
“It literally starts with where you position yourself in the
clinic room. I want to be able to see the facial expressions of everybody else
in the room. If the husband is sitting behind me, there’s information there
that I’m not getting,” Miller said. “I explain to patients that I will do my
best to answer all of their questions as honestly as I can. But sometimes the
honest answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ And it’s sometimes because nobody knows.”
Linda Frische-Mouri had one of those conversations with
Miller. Following her diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer in 2008, she was
grasping for answers and reassurance when she met Miller.
Without clinical trials we would have no new cancer therapies. That means accepting that what we have right now to offer patients is the best we’ll ever have. And I can’t accept that.
Kathy D. Miller, MD, Ballvé Lantero Professor of Oncology
“I remember saying, ‘Just tell me there’s hope,” said Frische-Mouri.
“I knew I was in good hands with Dr. Miller. I felt I was in the care of a
physician who was positive in her concern for my care and wellbeing, and
someone who was very knowledgeable, encouraging and compassionate. For me, she
was, and is, that voice of hope.”
Frische-Mouri, who elected to be part of a trial during her
treatment, saw the two sides of Miller—teacher and researcher—shine through
during her visits. As someone who craves information and knowledge, Miller’s
willingness to answer all her questions was a constant source of comfort.
“She took the time to draw on a white board as she was
explaining something to me,” said Frische-Mouri, who is now cancer free. “IU is
lucky to have her because of the leadership she gives and the research she does
in the effort to find new, effective treatments and cures for cancer.”
Living Her Dream—and More
So, has the child’s dream lived up to the hype?
Without a doubt, Miller said.
“My vision as a 5-year-old was all about taking care of
patients. And that’s still a huge part of it for me. My husband will tell you
that I’m happiest on clinic days,” said Miller, who lives in Brownsburg with
Jeff and their two children—son Kale, 13, and daughter Erin, 10.
But for the physician-scientist, having a hand in creating
therapies that she hopes will make cancer experts obsolete has made the journey
much richer than she ever dreamed.
“I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to take care of patients and not be able to be engaged in the research. Because no matter how hard I work in the clinic, there are only so many patients I can take care of,” Miller said. “But the impact of the research I do can affect thousands.”
To learn more about or support translational research in breast cancer, contact Lizzie Conkle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-278-2120.