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Stronger than cancer: Rising MHE student Marley Miller battles leukemia

Published on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022

holly, marley and thomas miller
BCSD photos / Monica Kreber

There is not much out there that scares Marley Miller.

This little 6-year-old daredevil has already dabbled in a lot of what would make other people sweat.

Go skiing and snowboarding and driving an ATV? Been there, done that. Halloween décor? Pssh – she would sooner put on a clown mask and scare you. Watch scary movies? Bring ‘em on – she loves them. The idea of jumping out of a plane? She can’t wait to do that one day with her dad.

…What about cancer?

Marley is nearing a year of battling this disease, but when recently asked this question, she was too busy playing a video game in the living room of her house to give it a second thought. She barely glanced over her shoulder to give a nonchalant, “Nope.”

She is a first-grader, and would otherwise be attending Mount Holly Elementary, but she is currently on Homebound as she continues chemotherapy treatment.

This adorable, pink-loving, snack-munching ball of energy has remained a pillar of strength since the very beginning of her cancer journey. With September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the Miller family is sharing their experience navigating Marley’s illness, and how they hold out hope that one day, there will be a cure for cancer.


The beginning

One would likely not even know Marley has cancer just by meeting her. She is a very energetic little girl who loves jumping on the trampoline, rough-housing with her dad, or getting ice cream with her big brother. When she is not fixated on a video game, she enjoys loving on her two family dogs, Pickles and Charlie, and her pet guinea pig, Gizmo. She has a beautiful princess-like bed – complete with string lights – that is almost completely covered in stuffed animals; her favorite one is a bear named Philbin.

Marley is the daughter of Goose Creek residents Thomas and Holly. She also has an older brother, Brayden, who lives in Mt. Pleasant.

They will say they certainly enjoy and appreciate life, particularly now that they have experienced cancer as a family, but the Millers have always been a very active bunch who exposed Marley to the great outdoors at a very young age. Marley is pretty much always ready for the next excursion. 

“We already loved life before she got diagnosed,” Thomas said. 

Last November, Marley, then five years old, started complaining about back pains. Doctors initially chalked it up to growing pains, but the issues went on for another six weeks.

The family really wanted to get Marley some blood work done but was not having any luck getting anything scheduled. Marley started getting really bad fevers and even battled both the flu and COVID simultaneously at one point.

Holly recalled trying to fight off the feeling that something worse was going on with her daughter’s health.

“I really just didn’t want it (the thoughts) to cross my lips,” she said.

Holly reconnected with her son’s former pediatrician at Palmetto Pediatrics, who got Marley scheduled for blood work. On January 25, a few hours after doing that lab work, Holly and Thomas got the verdict no parent would ever want: it was cancer, specifically B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Leukemia is a group of blood cancers that usually begin in the bone marrow and result in high numbers of abnormal blood cells. ALL is the most common form of cancer found in children – and, fortunately, it is also the most treatable.

Marley was admitted to MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital that night, and they “lived” in the hospital for more than two months straight.

During that time, Marley was in a pretty fragile state, dropping 10 pounds and dealing with treatment side effects like stomach problems.

Chemotherapy also caused her to lose her hair earlier this year. It is starting to grow back – she currently rocks a cute little pixie cut. Marley might lose her locks again with some upcoming treatments, but in true Marley fashion, she just shrugs this off with a “That’s OK, I love my fuzzhead.”

She receives much of her treatment through a port-a-cath, a small appliance installed beneath the skin on the right side of her chest that is connected to a vein. The port has a septum through which the chemo can be injected, and blood samples can also be drawn. Marley also has a gastrostomy tube, or g-tube, which is inserted through the belly that brings nutrition directly to her stomach.

Once she is done with the ongoing two more months of scheduled overnight visits, Marley will enter a “maintenance phase”, which is an additional 18 months of treatment. After that, she should be in a good place health-wise, with a less than one-percent chance of the cancer ever returning.

Marley’s parents were blown away by how brave their daughter was during that first initial stint in the hospital.

“She was, honestly, the strongest thing I’ve ever seen,” Holly said.


Hope for 2023

Marley’s energy has not wavered.

Holly said Marley is determined to be her independent self and not let cancer slow her down.

“With her, she’s like, ‘I’m sick, but I’m still going to do it,’” Holly said.

Thomas echoed similar thoughts.

“We have to tell her to rest because we need rest,” he said, adding, “She is just full of energy.”

The family moved from Albuquerque to the Charleston area last year to be closer to family (both Holly and Thomas are initially from the Charleston area). With the support they have gotten at MUSC, and the ability to have family nearby to help, the Millers truly believe they were “supposed” to be in Charleston to help Marley win her battle.

“It’s been a blessing,” Holly said. “I can’t imagine doing this in New Mexico, without family.”

The family has also connected with Camp Happy Days and Courageous Kidz, two local nonprofits that support and advocate for families affected by pediatric cancer. Marley and her brother recently participated in a surfing lesson event organized by Courageous Kidz. Holly said Marley rode her board with a big smile on her face, and even for the couple times she fell, Marley was determined to get back on the board and try again.

Marley has roughly two more months of scheduled overnight visits at the hospital that she still needs to tackle, but inadequate blood count numbers sometimes create delays in her getting that treatment.

Aside from those delays, her parents said Marley has responded to chemotherapy very well. The family has learned that Marley has a mutation in her leukemia cell that makes it to where Marley reacts to normal chemotherapy, saving her from having to try experimental drugs. marley with surfboard

Holly registered Marley for school this year, but Marley has only seen the outside of Mount Holly Elementary as of today. The Millers are currently eyeballing next semester as Marley’s start date at the school, and they are optimistic that social-butterfly Marley is going to have a great time connecting with her fellow first-graders.

If one were to ask her what she is most excited about when she goes to Mount Holly Elementary, she would tell them, “Lunch time!” (Marley is always down for a snack).

In all seriousness, Marley wants to go to school, and her parents talk to her about it often to get her prepared for that transition. Aside from the food, she is looking forward to playing at recess and drawing, and she is ready to socialize with more children her age.

Mount Holly Elementary is a Leader in Me school that offers leadership opportunities for students in every aspect of their education, creating a sense of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader. Marley has already established herself as a role model with her bravery and good attitude, so there is no doubt that Mount Holly Elementary will keep her busy when she gets there.

“She’s super excited,” Holly said.


Cancer advocates

Marley has her sights set on living her best life with the support of her family; she said the chemo is going to make her better, and has told her parents that she knows the doctors and nurses at MUSC are going to help her.

The one thing the Millers want others to know about cancer is: it can happen to anyone.

“You always think… ‘That’s not going to happen to me,’” Holly said. “You don’t know what you would do in that situation until you get there.”

However, Holly and Thomas have found their strength through Marley.

“I thought I was going to be in a fetal position the entire time because I had such high anxiety about it,” Holly said, adding that she impressed herself with the ability to stay calm. “It can happen to anyone, but you can also get through it – and there are positives.

“Luckily, we have a light at the end of our tunnel, sadly not everyone does,” Holly said.

Thomas said Holly has been the “rock” of the whole family during the ordeal.

“I’ve met a lot of strong people in my lifetime – she has got every single characteristic of those other people that I’ve met,” Thomas said. “She helped me when I couldn’t even help myself.”

The parents will admit that the experience, while difficult, has changed them for the better.

“It makes us appreciate life and the little things,” Holly said.

Thomas encourages other parents to always be vigilant when it comes to their children’s health, and to follow up with doctors if their child is not as active as normal.

“Be their advocate – they can’t speak for themselves,” he said, adding, “It might be your worst fear, but ask the question.”

 marley and thomas and dog holly and marley


Monica Kreber