Published on August 23, 2022

Positive Attitude During Cancer Treatment Keeps California Dreams in Focus

Michigan Native to Throw First Pitch at Aug. 30 Great Lakes Loons Game

Photo of Millie McGillis

Millie McGinnis, a Michigan native, was chasing her dreams in California when diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma glioma. 

Millie McGinnis, a Michigan native, was chasing her dreams in California when she began having intense headaches. In the fall of 2020, she was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma glioma – a tumor in the frontal lobe of her brain. She was 22 years old. After a long road and with the help of medical teams at MyMichigan Health and their partners at Michigan Medicine, McGinnis is planning to travel back to Los Angeles soon to pick up where she left off.

Upon receiving her diagnosis, McGinnis’s mother immediately flew to the west coast to help her pack and bring her back to Michigan where she could receive care close to family in Sanford. McGinnis’s type of cancer was determined as grade three, a coordinated treatment plan was necessary involving surgical, oncological and radiation teams at Michigan Medicine and MyMichigan Medical Center Midland.

Anaplastic astrocytoma is a rare malignant brain tumor, its exact cause unknown. In addition to having to navigate this unnerving territory, McGinnis’s diagnosis and initial treatments occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when visitor restrictions were in place. Being separated added extra strain and stress onto McGinnis and her family, but medical staff did their best to keep them as connected as they could. During pre-op in Ann Arbor, doctors and nurses communicated with McGinnis’s mom using FaceTime. McGinnis’s sister, a physician assistant, kept family and friends updated on social media.

Neurosurgeon Jason Heth, M.D., performed her surgery. It took 15 hours to complete, but the tumor was removed entirely. McGinnis was able to go home in less than a week to recover with family. “I don’t really remember much of the time after surgery,” said McGinnis. “I was just incredibly grateful for the expertise of Dr. Heth and his team.”

At her follow-up with Dr. Heth, he explained the radiation and chemotherapy were needed. He referred McGinnis to Neuro Oncologist Yoshie Umemura, M.D., in Ann Arbor and Radiation Oncologist Rajesh Kotecha, M.D., in Midland.

McGinnis was prescribed oral chemotherapy and radiation for six weeks. Weekly blood draws checked her platelets and white blood counts. “I was exhausted and struggled with eating,” McGinnis said. “Because I didn’t have infusions, I didn’t lose my hair. A person on the street probably would never know I had cancer. It reinforced my belief that being kind to every person you come in contact with is so important – you truly never know what they might be going through.”

McGinnis received radiation from Dr. Kotecha in Midland while maintaining video appointments with her oncologist Dr. Unamera in Ann Arbor. “Dr. Kotecha’s office has the most amazing group of people,” said McGinnis. “I highly, highly recommend the staff there. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. Their friendliness put me at ease.”  

Three months after surgery, an additional spot that was noted on the right temporal lobe showed growth. Dr. Umamera prescribed cyclic chemotherapy with follow-up MRIs. It was an ongoing battle to achieve the proper blood counts so that the chemo could be administered safely, and there were many lapses. “When I came back in October of 2020, I never imaged it would be a two-year ordeal,” she said. “Various things kept popping up that slowed my chemo down, and I’m still here. It has been frustrating. I will also say that many have it much worse than I do. I don’t spend time asking why; it is what it is.”

As McGinnis was unable to work during treatment, she applied for and qualified for grants from the Pardee Cancer Treatment Fund to assist with medication costs and expenses related to treatment. MyMichigan has begun construction on a comprehensive cancer center for the Midland campus. The James T. and Elsa U. Pardee Cancer Center (Pardee Cancer Center) groundbreaking was in April of this year.

“The Pardee family has done so much to help cancer patients like McGinnis in our region,” said Denise O’Keefe, executive director, MyMichigan Health Foundation. “Their commitment to bring a center such as this to our area will have a long-lasting impact on cancer patients in our communities.”

In May of 2022, family and friends surprised McGinnis with a “no more chemo” party. As of July, McGinnis is feeling well, exercising at the gym and excited about getting back to California to pursue her career goals. She will continue being monitored and work with her medical teams to keep her type of cancer under control.

When asked what she would say to others having to face something like this, she said “I followed doctors’ order and did my best to keep a positive outlook. I still do – positivity is key. I have also learned not to take anything for granted,” said McGinnis, who will throw out the first pitch at the Great Lakes Loons on Tuesday, Aug. 30. “I feel truly grateful and blessed to have gotten this far, and I am going to move forward and live my life the way I want to live it.”

Those interested in more information on MyMichigan’s comprehensive cancer program may visit www.mymichigan.org/cancer.