Abby Lee Miller of the popular show “Dance Moms” hasn’t let a cancer diagnosis stop her from living life to the fullest.
For almost a decade, dance instructor and choreographer Abby Lee Miller charmed audiences as the star of Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” (as well as several spinoff series). Her sassy and larger-than-life personality was a big reason viewers tuned in each week, excited to see Miller coaching talented young dancers hoping to make it big. But in 2018, a life-threatening diagnosis shook Miller’s world.
Miller started to have pain in her head and neck, which she thought was a bad sinus infection. But within 24 hours, her jaw was numb and the pain in her neck had intensified. “I was white as a ghost,” Miller says. “Sweating profusely, hallucinating, gibberish speaking … It was a very scary experience because I had no idea what was going on.”
She went to half a dozen doctors who all dismissed her pain, assuring her it was nothing — but it wasn’t nothing. It was Burkitt lymphoma. She was rushed to emergency surgery, which showed that the lymphoma had severely damaged her spine.
According to Dr. Afshin Eli Gabayan, Medical Director of the Beverly Hills Cancer Center, (who did not treat Miller) this highly aggressive lymphoid malignancy is very rare, with only 1,200 cases diagnosed each year. Gabayan says once it is in the spine, it is at a much later stage and treatments can be quite intense.
Following surgery, Miller underwent rigorous chemotherapy, but it couldn’t undo the damage and she lost the ability to walk.
With diligence and determination, she was able to regain some of her mobility, but healing is a journey, and she is currently only able to walk 30 steps at a time with the aid of her walker. Despite her struggles, Miller has not lost her trademark spunk. “Cancer will not stop me from living,” she says.
Eager to share her experience with others, Miller is working on a documentary chronicling her health journey, bringing attention to the doctors who quickly dismissed her pain as nothing serious. She is also teaching in-person dance classes while training dance teachers all over the world via Zoom. She teaches daily classes at her LA studio, the Abby Lee Dance Company, and at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in the Shonda Rhimes Performing Arts Center. She also travels quite a bit. “Although traveling with a 450-pound wheelchair proves to be difficult, I was just in Dubai and I’ve signed on to go to South Africa in October,” Miller says.
And with the recent release of past seasons of “Dance Moms” on Hulu, an entire new generation of children and parents are tuning in. “It’s crazy,” Miller says, “Kids that weren’t even born yet are now obsessed!”
Perhaps the project Miller is most excited about is the one she is working on with celebrity chef Bruno Serato and his nonprofit Caterina’s Club, which provides warm meals, affordable housing assistance and job training to houseless and low-income families throughout southern California. Today, more than 5,000 children each day are receiving a free meal at one of the 104 sites throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Miller was thrilled with the opportunity to help the organization. “I’m all about kids,” Miller says. “Anything to help children — you can count on me.” She’s impressed with what Serato is doing, and how the team at his world-class restaurant is preparing all the meals. “I just advertise and promote his mission,” Miller says. “Just five dollars will feed a family of four. There are over a million kids who go to bed hungry, and that is not acceptable. I don’t want any child to go to sleep without a meal.”
“Cancer will not stop me from living.”
Miller’s also making every effort to take care of herself, and while she isn’t as concerned about her lymphoma recurring, she knows she shouldn’t take any chances. “My mom died of colon cancer [and] my dad of esophageal cancer [so] I knew it ran in my DNA, but I never thought it would happen to me,” she says.
These days, Miller is happy with the life she’s created, and surrounds herself with people who only want the best for her. “The people in my life all support everything that I do, but they forget I’m in a wheelchair and how long everything takes me to do. They want me to just hurry up and walk again already, but that is not my reality,” she says. Even so, Miller knows she’s led one incredible life — “I do count my blessings every day.”