Julie Miller was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer last year, but the most severe pain she feels comes from neither the chemotherapy and its side effects, nor the neuropathy in her feet.
Rather, what has been most difficult for Miller to bear is watching the light go out of the eyes of her usually animated 12-year-old daughter, Lucie, her only child.
But for one day last summer, that light returned, thanks to the work of oncology nurse Rachel Antin and her newly formed foundation, One Day to Remember.
Antin, who currently works at Magee-Womens Hospital in palliative care, established her nonprofit less than a year ago and has already helped four local families, each headed by a terminally ill parent, experience one perfect day where his or her illness is kicked to the curb.
“It’s hard to see the pain in your child’s eyes,” said Miller, “and know that you’re the cause of it.”
“It has been very hard for my daughter,” Miller, 50, continued. “She really has had to grow up this year. She spends a lot of time home by herself, when my husband has to take me to the doctor.”
Miller’s cancer also has taken its toll on her husband, Ron, who works full time in maintenance at a mental health facility.
“He is very quiet and really doesn’t have anyone to talk to,” she said. “Now he does all the work around the house, and because I can’t drive because of the neuropathy in my feet, he has to drive Lucie, who is active in sports, everywhere. I worry a lot about him.”
Those worries were left behind on July 17 when a limousine picked up the Miller family from their home in Monroeville and delivered them to PNC Park in time for batting practice. Ron and Lucie are big Pirates fans, so when a coach gave Lucie a ball, and then she climbed over seats to collect four more, she was ecstatic.
“That just made her day,” Miller said.
Following batting practice, the Millers headed over to Steel Cactus for lunch, then back to the park to watch the Bucs beat the Brewers, further fed with all the concessions they could eat.
They were also followed around all day by a professional photographer who made them feel like celebrities and then created a book of photos to memorialize their special day.
“The best part of the day was seeing the light return to Lucie’s eyes, because she lost part of her personality this year,” Miller said. “I wanted her to have a perfect day.”
Antin, who moved to the Steel City for nursing school and decided to stay after she met and married Pittsburgher Ben Antin, was working at Hillman Cancer Center when she “noticed a void with families going through a cancer diagnosis,” she said.
Watching kids “struggle with how sick their parents got,” Antin was inspired to help.
She began by collecting funds to sponsor Christmas gifts one year for a single mother with a terminal prognosis and her three daughters, “to give them an uplifting feeling.”
For another single mother beginning hospice, Antin arranged a limousine and dinner on Mt. Washington for the woman and her 10-year-old daughter.
Then Antin set out to create a nonprofit that could help more families struggling with a terminal disease.
One Day to Remember has been a 501(c)(3) since last September and is funded by both private donors and a few corporate sponsors.
Antin, who does all the event planning herself, hopes to provide a special day for any family in which a parent has a “limited life expectancy,” is under the care of a physician and has at least one child under the age of 18.
“Every outing is tailored to the family,” Antin said. “I talk to the family about what they haven’t been able to do since their diagnosis.”
Other days to remember that Antin has planned include a horseback riding excursion and a private tour of the Pittsburgh Zoo.
“It provides a day of normalcy, a day of fun,” said Antin, who is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom. “It’s a day when the diagnosis is not the center of the world, and just a breath of fresh air for these people. It just gives them a break.”
While most experiences take three to four weeks to plan, Antin said she can work on an expedited schedule if the progression of the disease makes that necessary.
For the Miller family, the memories of their day at PNC Park will continue to be cherished.
“Cancer is always the elephant in the room,” Miller said. “But for that one day, there was no elephant in the room. We were just a family having fun.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at