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