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The Big Leap: Facing fears and unwinding both in the air and at home

Jan 04, 2011

January 2011 issue: Every human being knows what it feels like to be afraid. But when wearing the metaphoric white coat and stethoscope, oncologists have a responsibility to manage their fears by weighing options and basing decisions on rational thought. Outside of that realm, however, ASCO member Kathy Miller, MD, prefers to embrace her fears head first—with ankle harnesses and elastic cords. As a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Dr. Miller discusses with ASCO Connection her experience as a bungee jumper, as well as her more down-to-earth pursuits—hiking, skiing, and unplugging with her family.

AC: What sparked your interest in bungee jumping?
Dr. Miller: I saw a 60 Minutes special about bungee jumping years before my first jump. I was fascinated by the history and the spirit of A.J. Hackett, one of the pioneers of modern bungee jumping, who turned his passion into a successful commercial venture. I have always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie. When my first swim lesson group (age four) got to jump off the diving board as a special treat on our last day, I insisted on jumping from the high board—backwards.

Fast forward to 1991, my husband and I were planning a vacation to New Zealand. I knew I had to jump, and I had just the spot. The Kawarau Bridge spans a beautiful river gorge just outside of Queenstown. We arrived in perfect time for me to be one of the first jumpers of the day. When my turn came, Dad took pictures. Mom sat on a rock looking the other way with her eyes closed. After stepping on the scale (this is not a time to guess how much you weigh), you get wrapped up (imagine padded restraints tightly binding your ankles together), waddle to the edge of the platform, count down, and off you go. Yes—I screamed. Many people assume there is a sudden stop but the elastic results in a more gradual deceleration, followed by momentary stillness and a sudden bounce way up. That’s your time to play, twist, somersault, and enjoy the scenery. As you come to a stop, a boat floats below you to help you down and back to the side to start the climb back up the gorge. I couldn’t stop smiling.

AC: Was this a one-time experience, or have you bungee jumped more than once?
Dr. Miller: It’s addicting! My husband wasn’t interested in jumping initially but on our way out of Queenstown he decided to give it a try. My mother was so disappointed. As she put it, “I knew [Kathy] was crazy, but I thought you had more sense.” Since we were stopping anyhow, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump again and work on my form.

We returned to New Zealand a few years later and jumped in Skippers Canyon—at the time, the highest jump available. Skippers Canyon is a remote spot accessible only by Jeep but it’s worth it. You can survey the canyon with a zip-line ride before getting strapped up to jump. The water in Skippers isn’t deep enough for a wet jump but the extra height makes up for it, and the jet boat ride out of the canyon is a nice bonus. I must admit that jumping in some parking lot over an inflated safety mattress has little appeal. But give me a beautiful natural setting, and I’m ready.

We’ve also tried a reverse bungee jump in Mexico. Imagine a car seat in the middle of a metal cage suspended by tall bungee cords. Pull the cage down, strap into the seat, release the cords, and up you go. It’s not as exhilarating as the original, but still a decent ride.

AC: What was going through your mind before, during, and after the jumps?
Dr. Miller: I was terrified but I still did it. That’s the whole point really—pushing myself to overcome the fear was almost more exhilarating than the jump itself. Whenever I find myself afraid, I remember that I jumped off a bridge with nothing but big rubber bands tied to my ankles.

My husband compares it to your first sexual encounter—lots of anticipation and a bit of fear, followed by a sudden rush of excitement that is over way too quickly, leaving you to wonder, “What was that?” and “When can I do it again?”

AC: What other hobbies, activities, people, or experiences help you strike a good work/life balance?
Dr. Miller: My other interests will seem tame in comparison but they balance my work life in different ways. I grew up in a rural area and need regular time outside in natural surroundings to be at my best. In my mind, the best vacations are a several-day hike or downhill skiing—either is fine as long as there are no phones, computers, TV, or Internet. When we can’t get away, I find other ways to get outside. My son loves digging in the dirt and helped plant the kitchen garden this year. We started everything from seed on the dining room table. Four-year-olds will eat arugula when they grow it themselves! My great aunt taught me to bake bread, so lately I’ve been enjoying passing that on to my kids as well. Our current favorite is a French sourdough from wild yeast native to our house. I also enjoy activities that allow me to be creative—whether it’s sewing our son’s first Halloween costume, painting the mural in our daughter’s room, or crafting animals from Play-Doh. It’s a great escape and helps break through mental barriers. I’m convinced it helps me be a better scientist.

AC: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Dr. Miller: If you have the chance, take the wet jump where the bungee is set to let you go in about waist deep on the initial plunge. On a hot day, there’s nothing more refreshing. As my Skippers Canyon T-shirt says, “If you are not living life on the edge, you are taking up too much room.”

Dr. Miller is the Sheila D. Ward Scholar and Associate Professor of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, as well as an attending physician at Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, and consulting physician at Wishard Memorial Hospital and Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center. She is Chair of ASCO’s Scientific Program Committee, Chair-Elect of the Best of ASCO® Planning Committee, and was a 2000 Career Development Award recipient.

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