Streamwood drummer lost arm to cancer but doesn't miss a beat
Imagine being diagnosed with a type of cancer that each year affects only a few people in the United States. Imagine, now, being a drummer struck by the disease in your dominant arm.
That's what happened to Justin Miller, 19, of Streamwood, a student at Elgin Community College who was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma three years ago and had his arm amputated in May.
Justin MillerAge: 19 School: ECC
Who inspires you? People who don't let their uniqueness stop them from being whatever they want to be.
What book are you reading? "American on Purpose," by Craig Ferguson.
What's on your iPod? The Beatles, Queen, classic rock.
The three words that best describe you? Funny. Dedicated. Carefree.
Through it all, Justin continued to play the drums and gradually trained himself to switch to his left arm.
Even with one arm, Justin's skills are superior to most average amateur drummers, says Ron Zemke, contemporary music director at Our Redeemer's United Methodist Church in Schaumburg. Justin plays percussion in the church's young adult praise rock band.
"He's been such an inspiration to people. You think about how easy it is to give up in the face of difficulty, and here he has continued to do something that a lot of people would probably just quit," Zemke said.
"I'm sure somebody who is a really good percussionist would listen and say, 'Oh, I would do that differently.' But for most people listening, he sounds every bit as good as he did when he had two good arms," Zemke said.
Justin, a thin young man whose occasional bursts of laughter rock his whole body, said he is happy with what he has achieved, but there still is room to improve.
He was too shy to agree to a videotaped performance for this story.
"I can hear the itty bitty differences. I know how it's supposed to sound," Justin said. "But I can do it so that for the majority of the population it sounds right."
Justin said he's been drumming -- on furniture, pots and pans, even people -- as long as he's been walking.
His parents gave him a small drum set when he was 7; early on, he and his siblings, twin brother Jeremy and older sister Lindsey, formed a band.
"My brother played the guitar, and my sister was the singer. We're all musical," he said. "It lasted until my sister got into high school."
As a freshman at Streamwood High School, he joined the marching band's drum line and started playing in the youth band at church.
He knew something was wrong when his fingers began to tingle. Then his whole hand.
After the diagnosis, Justin underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but the tumor didn't shrink.
His arm eventually became permanently bent across his chest. It also became infected, and treating that, Justin said, was especially painful.
From March 2010 to April of this year, Justin took an experimental drug that made him weak and killed his appetite. He lost so much weight that he looked like a ghost in photos taken at a family event in early May, he said.
Through it all, Justin slowly and patiently taught himself to use his left arm as the dominant one while his right arm became tighter and less nimble.
"I kind of eased into it," he said. "One week I would play with two arms, then (the next week) with one arm, and so on."
While he says he has made a lot of progress, there are things he simply can't do anymore: a good drum roll and those tricky African-inspired beats, he said.
His mother, Peggy Miller, said it was painful through the course of the disease to see her son's life screech to a halt.
"His friends were wonderfully supportive, keeping in touch through Facebook and texting," she said. "But he watched them go on with their lives, and his was on hold. He watched many leave for college; he has to stay here. His disease controlled his life."
During his ordeal, Justin showed a great deal of kindness and bravery, as well as the matter-of-fact attitude typical of children and young adults, said David Walterhouse, Justin's oncologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
"These kids, they don't give in to the cancer. They keep living their lives," Walterhouse said.
Justin also made his priorities -- namely, playing the drums -- clear from the beginning. "He has always done what he needs to do to take care of his cancer, but he also sets limits," Walterhouse said. "I respect that."
This spring, Justin decided to have his arm amputated. He dreaded the notion when the subject first came up, but when it actually happened, it was liberating, he said.
"(My arm) was a hindrance. It hurt, it ached, it was in the way," he said. "Now, I can run around and throw a football, I can play soccer." He can also give tight hugs, which everyone tells him he's very good at, he said.
Justin has started regaining control of his life, his mother said. "He is out of pain, off all medication and chemo, gaining weight, gaining strength, feeling healthy, and full of energy," Peggy Miller said.
In January, Justin is scheduled to have surgery to remove small nodules in his lungs, which everyone hopes will be the last obstacle in his journey to be healthy. He also hopes to get a prosthetic arm soon.
Justin now informally mentors the members of the marching band's drum line at his old high school. He attended drum line camp in early August and helps out in class about once a week. He is often there when the marching band performs at football games.
"My sophomore year I had an excellent drum line instructor that was hired by the band director. He was really fun but still kept us on task. He had a big effect on me," Justin said. "I wanted to do that for others."
Streamwood High band director Sandra Smith said band members respond very well to Justin's friendly but mature directives. "He has amazing technique for a one-armed kid," Smith said. "I admire him, and I am very appreciative of the help he has been giving the music program."
Justin's help has been priceless, said snare drummer Jared Pierson, 15, a sophomore at Streamwood.
"Most of us had no idea what we were doing and now we're the strongest section of the band," Jared said. "I think he plays really well; he plays better than some of the people in marching band here."
Justin said he always wanted to play in an orchestra pit or in a recording studio. His major at ECC was music, but he switched to anthropology as the cancer began to take a toll. Last year, he joined the ECC concert band, but it proved to be too much at the time. "I wasn't confident enough," he said. "I might try again."
Justin said it's hard to get through to people that they don't have to be careful around him. "Humor is my main coping mechanism. I will joke with my friends, but some of them don't know how to react," he said. "It's OK to laugh."
Church music director Zemke said Justin's journey has been eye-opening for the congregation.
"He has really risen above it to show that you can stand up in the face of difficulty, and still do the things you love."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote this week's column. She and Kimberly Pohl are always looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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