last week, Karen Miller received a phone call that she’d
been hoping to get for a few days. Her medical practitioner
informed her that the lump that they had found in her was
not cancerous. For Miller, it meant that she could continue
to go on with life as usual.
“It’s immensely stressful,” Miller said
of the days-long wait period between when tests are first
administered, the results are passed along through a number
of specialists, forwarded to the primary care physician, and
finally disclosed to the patient – or as Miller calls
herself, the healthcare consumer.
“I don’t think I’m out of the woods.”
Miller’s body does not contain any cancerous tumors.
But it once did, and she says that she’ll never be cancer-free.
Still she presses on.
Miller, like many in the town of Huntington, have taken it
upon themselves to work independently, or form a not-forprofit
agency with concerned friends, family members and like-minded
individuals, to make a difference in the town of Huntington.
In Miller’s case, her agencies are the Huntington Breast
Cancer Action Coalition and Prevention Is The Cure, two groups
that help both those who survive cancer and those who have
never been afflicted with the disease.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1987. Miller, who was
working as an interior designer, received a call at home from
her doctor as she was preparing a feast for her extended family.
He told her that recent test results indicated she had breast
“I was a marathon runner and a clean machine, so I
didn’t fall into the risk category. ‘They’re
going to discover they made a mistake,’” she recalled
Putting it behind her for the time being, she said she pressed
on with the dinner arrangements, telling her husband and deciding
right away that she would get a second opinion. Cancer didn’t
run in her family, so she thought the likelihood was good
that the test results were erroneous. She would later find
out that the cancer was real, and that she was genetically
predisposed to it.
Miller got a mastectomy and admitted herself to the Memorial
Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. While recovering
there, without the use of chemotherapy or any other “poison
chemical therapy” as she refers to them, she met women
from all across the county who were battling the same disease
who, in some cases, were much worse off than she was.
“I’m not a victim and I’m not a survivor
– it’s something that makes us all equal, which
is a good thing,” she said. As she recovered, it hardened
her determination that something productive must be done.
Men and women had to be educated about the disease, she thought,
because little was known at the time and most people didn’t
get themselves checked for cancer. HBCAC was formed in 1989.
“Into our second year we discovered that we had a message
that we wanted to provide to the rest of the world,”
she said. “We were the faces of a disease that nobody
wants to talk about – and that is unacceptable.”
Miller feels that the proper message was obscured for years
and maintains to this day that early detection is not the
message and that the medical industry belongs reinforcing
the act of active prevention.
At the turn of the century, Miller founded another organization
that works side-by-side with HBCAC. Many recognize Prevention
is the Cure as the group that hosts Huntington’s
annual breast cancer walk, but the two groups are beginning
to be recognized nationally as one-of-a-kind non-profits that
are helping shape the anti-cancer movement and influence doctors
and researchers alike.
“Finally, about six years ago, I think that we turned
a corner because we really got the word out to question that
single path that the industry was guiding us towards,”
Miller said. “Prevention has to have its own path, its
own focus, and that is actually the only path that provides
you with some pro-activity
“We are a reactive society and we have to get people
engaged, not in doom and gloom, but to provide education and
a venue for people to come so they understand more and they
become proactive in their health,” she said. “If
we bring focus to something, the research will come, we will
know more about it, and we will know what we can do to minimize
these risks ... and so our children won’t face the diseases
we’ve faced over the years.”
As she explained, it is the goal of her and the organizations
she captains to make individuals active in their healthcare
– to understand that they are as vital a part in the
“healthcare team” as the doctors, scientists,
and pharmaceutical companies. Healthcare consumers should
choose their healthcare provider carefully, expect them to
provide information in a short period of time and in a language
that they can understand, and to explore the many ways that
their experiences can be valuable to the world’s campaign
“We are definitely nationally recognized right here
locally … as having that message clear and delivered,
and we have that seat at the table,” Miller said.
But she feels that this couldn’t have been done without
an accepting and supportive community, as well as open-minded,
productive government. These people have helped Miller, HBCAC
and Prevention is the Cure to complete a 10-year cancer mapping
project that provides evidence of geographical locations,
as well as environmental and industrial hot spots that can
be investigated for their possible ties to cancer clusters
on Long Island.
“That’s what a proactive health organization
is about,” she said. “We try to attract people
who don’t come to us only in a reactive state. We offer
opportunities to come to us and be proactive. I think that’s
what sets us apart in the arena of health.”
Vic Skolnik recalled hosting a film and lecture about breast
cancer with Miller at his Cinema Arts Center some time ago.
He remembered the panel of officials who were “peppered”
with questions from the audience and looks back on it as a
huge success. “It was like having a data bank in front
of you,” Skolnik said. “It went on for quite a
time and it was one of the most successful things [we’ve
“I don’t think you get many of those kinds of
people who dedicate their lives [to a cause].”
Miller said that she lives her life to the fullest every
day. Having long since abandoned interior design, cancer prevention
and education is now all she works on. “Seven days a
week, a million hours, it’s all about health,”
“Make your health part of your life.”