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Honoring Matt: Son lost to colon cancer remembered for things he loved

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Sheri Miller, of Winchester, holds a photo taken with her son, Matt, who died from colon cancer in 2009 when he was 28. The local Corvette club is having a car show to benefit hospice in his honor. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)


Corvette show planned Saturday

The Matt Miller Memorial Corvette Car Show hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Corvette Club will take place on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Blue Ridge Hospice. For more information, go online to www.svcorvetteclub.org.
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A photo of Matt Miller sits on the coffee table in the Miller home. The family had pictures taken before he died last summer. (Buy photo)

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Mrs. Miller shows the tattoo she had done in memory of her son. (Buy photo)

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Sheri Miller, of Winchester, holds a memory orb that contains the ashes of her son. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Jessica Wiant - jwiant@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Most mothers don't lose their sons so soon.

Mark and Sheri Miller's only child succumbed to a battle with colorectal cancer in his parents' home on Aug. 16, 2009. Last month he would have turned 29.

It was a painful process.

Like any family that has lost a loved one, there have been bad days.

"We've had our ups and downs," Mrs. Miller said.

But there have also been bright points, just as with Matt Miller's life.

•••

Because his father was in the Army, Matt Miller moved around a few times as a child before the family moved to Winchester when he was in sixth grade, his mother said.

Settling into a place where most of the other pupils were so established was difficult, she said.

While he was a student at Handley High School, his dad taught him and a group of other students to juggle, and that became his passion, she said.

"He just picked it up and just never stopped," she said. "Everybody remembers him as being the juggler."

Mrs. Miller can go on and on about how good her son was at his beloved hobby -- how he could have been a professional, how he taught himself with books and DVDs and also studied under a pro at a store in Washington, how he practiced for hours on end.

Matt Miller graduated from high school in 1999, but wasn't set on any particular career path, she explained. He worked some here and there, and he got into drugs, beginning a "vicious cycle" of drug and alcohol abuse and treatment.

He eventually got clean and stayed that way after completing treatment at Bridging the Gaps in Winchester. It was then that he and his father pitched the idea of opening up a store to Mrs. Miller, she said.

They decided to go for it, "for Matt," she said.

Incredible Flying Objects opened on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester in 2006 -- offering juggling, magic tricks, toys and more -- and Matt Miller's reputation as the juggler expanded as he taught visitors tricks and demonstrated his skills. People came to the store just to watch him juggle, Mrs. Miller said.

He was very good with children, she said.

•••

During the year after the store opened, Matt Miller developed back pain, which doctors thought was from a muscle strain caused by his juggling. The pain became worse, and moved to his abdomen eventually, Mrs. Miller said.

On New Year's Eve 2007, it got so bad his parents rushed him to the emergency room.
Tests in the following days revealed the cancer, and he underwent surgery almost immediately.

By the time he was diagnosed, Matt Miller had stage 4 cancer, said his oncologist, Dr. William Houck III. About 50,000 Americans die each year from the disease, he said, but its incidence only begins to pick up past age 40. Fewer than 1 percent of colorectal cancer cases are in patients younger than 30, he said.

Her son only got to enjoy his sobriety for about a year and half, Mrs. Miller said, but his past was behind him, and their battle with cancer just beginning.

Houck was honest with the family about how bad the cancer was, Mrs. Miller said. It had spread into other parts of the abdomen.

"It was a shock," she said.

Over the next year, Matt Miller underwent treatments and continued to juggle as much as he could. During treatment, he would juggle to entertain the other patients, she said.

"He loved to make people smile," Mrs. Miller said. "Juggling was still his thing."

•••

Of course, he had another thing, too -- cars, according to Mrs. Miller.

Mark Miller owned a Corvette at one point and had started a club back up in Winchester. Just as with juggling, Matt Miller became a car enthusiast, too.

His mother bought him a subscription to the duPont REGISTRY -- a catalog of luxury automobiles -- and he would bring that along to cancer treatments, reading about each vehicle and showing them off to his mom.

The treatment seemed to be working, she said, until it didn't any more. When nothing else could be done, Mrs. Miller, a career nurse, undertook her son's care at home. Managing his pain, especially due to his prior drug abuse, became the battle.

They made the most of months of treatment and at-home care.

There were times when the family wasn't that close, but during her son's illness, they were able to reconnect, Mrs. Miller said.

"We had a lot of time that a lot of people don't have," she said.

Her son never wanted to die, she said, but he came to accept it. He decided on many final wishes, including that he would be cremated and his ashes put into a special "memory orb," for his family to keep. Some of his ashes also would be put into a necklace that his mother could always wear.

He also requested that both his mother and his father get tattoos using special ink made from some of his ashes, and they both did. His mother's features the blue colon cancer ribbon. Both tattoos feature jugglers' jingle bells.

"I have something that's part of him that's part of me now," Mrs. Miller said.

He also decided on a memorial service at the store instead of a funeral. Friends shared photos and video of him, and, of course, they juggled.

•••

In the final weeks of his life, Matt Miller received hospice care -- another bright spot in a devastating time.

Hospice, Houck said, gets a bad rap as somewhere to turn in defeat, when it really is an active intervention, to treat symptoms when the benefits of treating the illness no longer outweigh the risks.

"I'm telling you, I can't say enough good things about Blue Ridge Hospice," Mrs. Miller said. "They were awesome."

Through hospice, Mrs. Miller's son was able to stay comfortable, even in death, and when the day came, the hospice workers who had worked with him all along came to be there, even though they weren't on call, she said.

"I'm just so happy that he wasn't in pain," she said.

Having hospice allowed Mrs. Miller to have a little less of a load caring for her son. They served as a sounding board, and could offer second opinions, she said. After his death, they also offered a bereavement program for Mrs. Miller and her husband, and they attended every session, she said.

•••

Mrs. Miller focuses on remembering her son rather than asking questions about why cancer happened to him.

"It's just one of those weird things. Colon cancer is very strange," she said. "I'll never know why."

For Houck, Matt Miller was a special case, and not only because of the rarity of such a young man having colorectal cancer.

"He was a very neat guy to deal with," Houck said. He had a lot of family support, an impressive life story, and was a vibrant individual -- and, of course, Houck remembers his juggling.

Talking about her son -- and hearing others do so -- keeps his memory alive, Mrs. Miller said.

"We miss him terrible," she said. "It's difficult."

"I love to talk about Matt," she said. "Not everyone would want that probably. It's just an individual thing."

The young jugglers that he mentored carry on his passion. One is going to attend a special circus school, and Mrs. Miller sees her son in him.

"It's his legacy," she said.

His name also will carry on in an event being put on by the Corvette club his father started. The group is holding a Matt Miller Memorial Corvette Car Show on Saturday from 10 to 3 p.m. on the walking mall, according to a news release from the club.

As many as 100 cars are expected to participate, and proceeds will go to Blue Ridge Hospice.

The fact that it's a car show is fitting, according to Mrs. Miller.

"He would have loved that."

As for her own legacy, Mrs. Miller hasn't yet returned to nursing, but she said she would love to become a hospice worker herself. She's a caregiver, she said, and she misses having someone to care for.



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