Rare, painful tumor was dissolving woman’s bones

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Valerie Miller may have just turned 50, but her bones would tell a very different story.

“I would cough or sneeze the wrong way and have broken ribs,” said the Hephzibah woman. “I went from going to work every day to barely being able to get out of bed, and I was in tremendous pain, just unbearable pain.”

Miller worked at Fort Gordon as a certified nurse anesthetist until her illness forced her to stop. She also was very devoted to her church – Compass Christian Church – where her husband Tony is pastor. But she had to cut back on her duties there as well.

“I was hurting so bad, and I just wanted to be free from all this pain,” she said.

It was so intense that Miller cried herself to sleep most nights. She sought medical help several times over the past two years and was told she probably had fibromyalgia.

“I was prescribed some pain pills, but the relief was only temporary.”

Miller said that she hurt so severely for so long, and she felt so helpless that she became desperate. Her anguish turned into chronic depression, and she finally sought help at the Emergency Department at Augusta University Medical Center.

Miller said she told the psychiatrist evaluating her, “I’m not crazy; I am just hurting so bad.”

Her husband of 27 years didn’t even realize how grave the situation was until then.

“She’s been through so much,” Tony Miller said during one of his wife’s physical therapy sessions at AU Health Sports Medicine Center. “This has been difficult for our family, too.”

After being examined in the ED, Miller was admitted to AU Medical Center, where she told physicians that she felt like one of her legs was about to break, and she would take whatever they would give her, if they could just make the pain stop. So, several tests were ordered.

A full-body scan revealed Miller was suffering from tumor-induced osteomalacia, an extremely rare condition in which a tumor was leaching all of the phosphate from her body, essentially dissolving her skeleton. These tumors can be centered in soft tissue or bone; hers was centered in the soft tissue and invading adjacent bone.  Surprisingly, a mass no larger than the nail bed of Miller’s thumb was wreaking all of this havoc.

Dr. Kelly Homlar, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in oncology, removed the tumor and a portion of the fibula with it, because there’s a high risk for regrowth. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, negating the need for radiation or chemotherapy; however, Miller will have to be monitored for at least a year.

Surgery day on Sept. 2 has become a special day for her, because it’s the day she was finally relieved of the constant, chronic pain.

“The first two weeks at home were hard, but my husband and church members were helping me,” said the mother of two adult children. Miller said now that she’s in recovery, she can  help her 19-year-old daughter move to Chattanooga State Community College, where she will attend on a basketball scholarship.

Miller works with a physical therapist twice a week to increase her strength and regain full mobility, but she admits, that patience is not her strong suit.

“I’m getting bored in the waiting, but remind myself that I need to take just one day at a time,” she said.

Miller has already graduated from a walker to no walking assistance in a short time.

“God has truly healed me. I am a walking testimony, and I give God the glory.”

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Written by
Denise Parrish

Denise Parrish is Director of Communications for Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement at Augusta University. Contact her to schedule an interview on this topic at 706-721-9760 or mparrish@augusta.edu.

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