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At Niagara-Wheatfield, everyone is a part of 'Team Miller'

It was December 2011, three weeks before Christmas, when Krista Miller got the news.

She remembers the frantic run to her car. She remembers tears dripping down her face and onto her steering wheel. She remembers calling her husband at work to tell him the two had to come back to see a doctor first thing tomorrow. How something was terribly wrong.

A routine visit to the Summit Medical Complex revealed her worst nightmare.

Cancer.

“It was devastating because I was thinking it could be my last Christmas with my kids,” said Miller, a mother of two children in elementary school at the time. “I was just so afraid I wouldn’t be able to watch them grow up and just be their mom.”

Cancer threatened to take Krista’s life. It ended up giving her more reasons to live.

Don’t believe it?

Just venture into Niagara-Wheatfield's Edward Town Middle School, where she’s a sixth-grade teacher, and you’ll see halls flooded with pink “Team Miller” shirts. Ask anyone who attended Wheatfield’s “pink-out” game in January, where both the home Falcons and visiting Lew-Port wore the “Team Miler” shirts in warmups and the school’s gym was transformed into a sea of pink. Take a trip to the grocery store with Krista and you’ll see kids she doesn’t even know give her a hug and wish her well.

Everybody in Wheatfield has Krista Miller's back because everybody in Wheatfield knows her story. That’s how it works in small towns, for better or worse, but they stand together through the most difficult times.

“There’s support everywhere,” she said. “I’ve been getting endless homemade cards from students in the school. Adults in the building are always looking for ways to help my husband and me. ‘Can we help with this kids? Can we drive them there? Can we do this for you?’

“We know we’re not alone.”

Krista’s husband, Steve, knows this support well. He’s seen the community’s response to life’s trials and tribulations as both a child and as a teacher.

Despite being a North Tonawanda native, he grew up around the district as his father, Don Miller, coached boys basketball at Niagara-Wheatfield for 30 years. Now Steve teaches high school history at Wheatfield. He’s seen students lose parents, siblings and homes. Other teachers have had their own cancer battles.

“People here always step up,” Steve Miller said. “When one of us is down, we’re all down.”

Now he knows it firsthand.

For the first time in his 20-year tenure at Wheatfield, Steve isn’t coaching the boys junior varsity basketball team. It was a tough call, but after a discussion with varsity coach Erik O’Bryan, the two agreed that Steve had more important things to focus on than hoops.

Steve, who hasn’t missed one of Krista’s doctor's appointments or chemo treatments since her first mammogram in 2011, still serves as a varsity assistant when time allows.

O’Bryan knows how much basketball means to Steve, so to show support for the Miller Family, he spearheaded the “pink-out” game on Jan. 16. It was a moment for his team to embrace Krista, Steve, and their children Kalee, a ninth-grader, and Cam, who’s a junior forward on the basketball team.

“I try to always remind the guys, and even myself at times, that this is easy,” said O’Bryan, whose mother was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “We’re playing basketball. We’re practicing, playing games – that’s an easy part of life. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not so easy.”

***

The pink-out game was sparked by a movement that began in Niagara-Wheatfield's middle school back in September of last year.

Krista Miller was first diagnosed in 2011 with triple negative breast cancer, one of the more aggressive forms. It appeared she was on the road toward remission until she was re-diagnosed again in June, the first day of summer vacation. This time, it was Stage 2 breast cancer.

“It wasn’t even a reoccurrence of the first cancer, it was a brand new, whole new cancer. It was kind of a double whammy there, like bad luck twice,” Krista Miller said.

On the first Friday of the school year, Miller knew she had to tell her class. She told her students about the cancer, and that she was shaving her head over the weekend. Starting the following week, she’d be wearing a hat in class.

Miller, an educator for 25 years, knew it’d be difficult news for students to take. Some were confused, others speechless. The following Monday, Miller experienced the unexpected. One of her students, Shawn Watson, 11, arrived to class wearing a pink T-shirt.

"Team Miller" across his chest. "#FalconFamily" underneath.

“I asked him, ‘Shawn, where’d you get that?’ He’s like, ‘Well, I made it. And I made you one, too,’” Miller said.

Shortly after Miller told the class she was undergoing chemotherapy, Shawn decided he wanted to do something for her and show his support. He and his mom took a drive to the local Hobby Lobby to buy shirts and he came up with a design.

“I was just hoping it would cheer her up, to make her feel better and take her worries off her cancer at the time,” he said.

Shawn, who transferred to Niagara-Wheatfield this year, gave his friend a shirt. Then, one by one, Shawn’s classmates started asking him how they could get their hands on one. Before he knew it, teachers were asking. Mrs. Miller’s former students were asking.

“That little action of kindness that he did spread like wildfire,” Miller said.

Homemade Hobby Lobby shirts weren’t going to cut it anymore. Niagara Falls print shop Dan the Man was willing to follow the shirt design and began fielding hundreds of orders from teachers and students. At last count, the print shop sold more than 500 “Team Miller” shirts.

O’Bryan footed the bill for shirts for both the boys JV and varsity basketball teams, and planned on the team wearing them in pregame warmups. Then, as the shirts began to get more popular, O’Bryan decided to host the pink-out game as a way to support the Miller family.

Lew-Port coach Matt Bradshaw caught wind of O’Bryan’s plans and wanted to be involved, too. He had known Steve through years of coaching against him, and knew Krista was a 1989 Lew-Port graduate.

“The Millers are just a classy family – it was an easy decision for me,” Bradshaw said. "You step in between the lines, you play a game. You step outside the boundaries, there’s a thing called life and there’s challenges. We try to teach our kids to be of service, to be selfless.

“Through athletics, you can do a lot of positive things outside the actual game. I was really proud of my players for embracing it.”

***

Krista Miller won’t lie, these last seven months have tested her strength.

It’s not a coincidence her 18 weeks of chemo were scheduled on Thursdays. Krista requested it that way so that she’d only have to take off once a week and use the weekend to recover from the treatment.

In her first bout with cancer, she went for radiation during her lunch breaks. She'd leave when the bell rang and head to the Sanborn Cancer Center to get the treatment.

When Krista was diagnosed a second time, doctors scheduled surgery on Sept. 5, the first day of school. She “threw a fit.” Krista talked doctors into letting her reschedule it for August. Two weeks later, she was at work for the first day of school.

Krista has dedicated herself to school amid treatment, and the community responded in the only way it knew how: By joining hands for a common cause and uniting a movement.

“I consider my school, students and faculty an extension of my family,” she said. “I could have sat at home by myself for six months, or I could go to school and feel supported and embraced by my family and friends. It's been so humbling.”   

When a reporter asked Krista how cancer has changed her, she was stumped. Three days later, it came to her — it’s the “Life is Good” baseball hat a friend gave her to cover up her bald head. She doesn’t wear the hat for its brand name, but its meaning.

“I don't have to go to work, I get to go work," Krista said. "I don’t have to go grocery shopping, I get to go grocery shopping and do laundry all weekend. And I get to cart my kids around to their practices and games. I am so lucky that my life is more than good, it’s great.

“And I’m not going to let cancer take that away from me. No way, no how.”

Niagara-Wheatfield won’t, either.

A reminder is on its favorite T-shirt.

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