Tragedy causes us to react in various ways. Some shut down, some accept their lot and move on with life, and some are inspired to make it so no one ever has to experience that tragedy again. This last scenario was the case for Tara Miller.
Tara Miller was a force to be reckoned with. She was a skilled professional, caring sister and friend, and an absolute inspiration to all those who knew her.
Tara lost her battle with melanoma, but the legacy she left behind through the founding of the Tara Miller Melanoma Foundation (TMMF) continues to positively impact countless lives to this day.
This is Tara's story, as told by her sister, Lauren.
When and how was your sister first diagnosed with melanoma?
My sister was diagnosed with melanoma on July 10th, 2013. She had a bump behind her ear that started to irritate her when she ate so went to the doctor. We thought it was just a cyst that would need to be removed and no big deal. She had a CT and they told her she should get it checked further and biopsied. It turns out, it was not a cyst, it was melanoma. It started as stage 3C melanoma but then quickly progressed to stage 4.
Tara wrote about her initial diagnoses in the original About Us page on our (TMMF) website. This is what it said:
"As you all know, I was diagnosed with Melanoma in July- July 10, 2013, to be exact. It started when I found a bump behind my left ear. Dr. O'Malley ordered an ultra-sound guided biopsy, which I had on Monday, July 8, 2013. Two days later, on Wednesday, I was at work and I got the phone call no one ever expects... He told me that the biopsy indicated that the tumor on my parotid was melanoma and that I would need a full body PET scan and that I needed to see a medical oncologist Friday afternoon. For some reason, that’s when it hit me- oncologists are cancer doctors- I have cancer. And so my fight with this disease began."
How did your sister's diagnosis change your family’s life?
Tara’s diagnosis terrified us in a way that I cannot even put into words. But at the same time, when I think about her diagnosis, that moment we each found out and the days, weeks and months that followed, all I can think about is how incredible she was. Tara had a strength and selflessness that even in what was clearly the scariest time of her life, she never once wavered from her ‘make the best of it’ attitude and mission to always find the ‘silver lining’. From brain surgeries to radiation, no matter what she went through, she made the best of it and made it fun. Tara started TMMF (Tara Miller Melanoma Foundation) which changed our family forever. It was Tara’s vision and her mission but inspired us all and she asked our family to make sure, no matter what her outcome was, to continue the mission and find a cure. Our family is now laser focused on seeing that happen. We have not had a family dinner since she died, that we did not talk about TMMF and how we can continue her legacy.
What would you say was the most impactful experience of your sister’s battle with melanoma?
I think the most impactful experience in Tara’s battle was that she started the Tara Miller Melanoma Foundation to help every patient that would come after her. She knew that by the time she raised money and funded research, it likely would not impact her outcome (at the time, the stat she was given was that only 25% of stage 4 patients made it passed 1 year from when they were diagnosed). That did not stop or slow her down though, she just thought that if she did not stop and do something about the lack of research now, those that followed in her path would have the same lack of treatments and devastating odds.
If I had to pick a second though, I would say it was when she set up her caring bridge page. Tara never liked attention and was not the type of person that wanted to share all the details of her life with people. However, she saw how hard it was for my parents, sister and I to daily be asked how she is doing and give updates (without crying). Tara started the blog to make our lives easier. She had a way of explaining her disease and her treatments in a way that really brought the readers in and made them a part of the journey with her. She was also funny, she found the fun and the humor in everything she did and she really practiced what she preached. We never realized until after she died, just how many people were following her story and how many people’s lives she impacted. We have heard from melanoma patients who read it at the time, medical professionals, researchers, etc. about how inspiring her battle was from reading her blog but the part about her blog that it inspired people to “make the best of it” no matter what “it” was. We got countless messages after she died from people telling us how much she inspired them and changed their life. I saved every card and message and cannot tell you how much I enjoy reading them and thinking back on just how incredible of a legacy she left.
What would you most like people to know about your sister and the kind of person she was?
She was an inspiration, she was extraordinary, she was selfless and caring beyond words but more than anything, I just want people to know she was FUN! She was the girl you wanted to be friends with because you just loved being around her and the sister we were always so thankful to have in our corner because she would have your back like no one else. One of the things she was most proud of though, and I think she would want people to know, is that she was a lawyer. She passed the NJ and PA bar exam and had just started her law career when she was diagnosed. The Judge she clerked for is one of her biggest fans and said some of the work she did for him is the best he has seen in his career. She posthumously received the Widener Law School Alumni of the Year after she passed away.
How important was sun protection to your family prior to your sister’s diagnosis?
We were always careful about sun protection and wearing sunscreen (my mom was always very hard core about this with us also) but we had not yet discovered UPF clothing before Tara's battle. We had to rely on reapplying sunscreen and trying our best – now we are like the SPF police at our house, even when we have friends over making sure everyone is in the shade, has on sunscreen, etc.
Did your sister’s diagnosis change your perspective on the importance of sun protection?
Absolutely. While we have always been good about wearing sunscreen and staying in the shade sometimes, it has now become critical to how we function.
What are some of your favorite ways to stay sun safe?
We love UPF clothing! Especially now, having a 1 year old who does not sit still and is constantly putting her fingers in her mouth, being able to put a UPF outfit on her when we go for our walks in the morning gives me more peace of mind knowing she is covered without eating sunscreen the whole time. We also had TMMF hats made that we all wear all the time. One of the coolest moments was in Philly a few years ago, someone recognized the logo of the hat and started talking to me in an elevator about how they have heard such great things about that organization and the event they throw every year. I cannot even explain how proud I was in that moment to introduce myself and say I was Tara’s twin sister.
Is there an inspirational song that keeps you moving forward and gives you strength in your life?
This question gave me goose bumps. In a conversation when we were 16, Tara picked out her funeral song. She said she wanted it to be “I hope you Dance’ from LeeAnn Womack. On her way to Houston when she moved there with my mom for 6 weeks to get Proton Therapy, she saw a magnet with a quote she loved and she bought it, it said “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain”. She also had a funny (but very Tara) perspective on the rain….she had a pair of rainboots she loved and she just said she got excited every time it rained because it meant she got to wear her rainboots. She said people who get upset when it rains should try getting fun rainboots that make them smile when it rains. So, I cannot tell you how many times we have used the analogy now, that it is like dancing in the rain. I was never one to believe in “signs” but so many things happened after she died that have made me a believer. Six weeks after she died, on our 30th birthday which also happened to be thanksgiving that year, LeeAnn Womack was signing the national anthem for the Eagles Thanksgiving Day game. On the 1 year anniversary of her dying, right as we were toasting her life, it downpoured rain for about 5 minutes then cleared up. And so many brides would probably be upset about rain on their wedding day, but it rained the day my husband and I got engaged, on my wedding shower, on our wedding day and on the way to the hospital the day our daughter, Taylor Tara, was born.
What is the best advice you can give to someone who thinks that skin cancer won’t happen to them?
The logical part of me wants to explain the stats and just how common it is but I know you all probably have that covered. I think one of the most dangerous misconceptions with melanoma is that it happens to older people who have been in the sun their whole lives – which is a true statement but I think what we did not realize until we were in this world is just how common it is in young people. I have met some incredible people in the melanoma community. I have become friends with other advocates, I have met survivors who are alive because of the breakthroughs the past few years but I have also watched the heartbreak that has come over other families as they said good bye to their 24 year old sister or their 16 year old nephew. More and more young people are getting diagnosed. For some reason, I tend to meet or know even more women in their 20s and 30s. The best advice I can give is take it seriously, cover-up and make sure your kids, parents and family all do the same.