Coast Union student exhibits courage in his fight against cancer

CambriaAugust 22, 2013 

TJ Miller

DEBBIE MARKHAM — Courtesy photo

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, Sept. 4. Friends of TJ Miller will hold a pasta dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Cambria Vets Hall. It is dine in or drive through. Tickets are $10, available at the Village Bean, at the door, or by calling Lani Zaragoza at 909-1514. We will be at Cambria Farmers Market on March 23 and 30 as well. Proceeds will go to TJ and his family to fulfill his bucket list, which includes a trip to Hawaii three days following this event.

Coast Union High School senior TJ Miller has been down this road before. As a fourth-grader, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, undergoing surgery and radiation. Now, seven years later, he sits in his family’s home in Cayucos next to his mother, Laura. His stepdad, Matt, is at work; his 13-year-old brother, Andrew, has yet to emerge from his bedroom on a sunny summer morning.

The downstairs is becoming a guys’ man cave, with old soft black leather couches and a colorful big rug. TJ is scouring Craigslist for a TV and mini-fridge. The main room overlooks a deck and yard backing on to Old Creek. Kal’el, the family beagle, roams around outside.

Until May, TJ was living a teenager’s life, attending CUHS, running cross country, which he says he enjoyed although “I wasn’t that good at it,” enjoying FFA and working as a drama techie.

Then, symptoms returned; TJ had surgery at a Stanford hospital. He has a Stage 4 tumor; his life expectancy is 6 to 12 months. Chemotherapy began in June. The surgery has left him weakened on his left side; weekly physical therapy is helping. He walks without assistance, describing it as “being in a bouncy house.” He works hard to make walking appear normal.

TJ has a close, loving family, a vigilant mother who is his constant advocate. He has an extended family as well — the students, teachers and parents who are part of the CUHS drama program. TJ became involved in the program when he attended club rush as a freshman. He knew acting wasn’t for him but was attracted to the lure of the backstage crew. Soon he was constructing sets, collecting and organizing props and then moving them into place during the spring musicals. No drama production works without a coordinated team effort; TJ became a core member of the drama family. He smiles when he describes figuring out how to help the Wicked Witch of the West “melt” into the stage during the production of “Wizard of Oz.”

TJ’s friends are meeting to help one of their own, to ask TJ what’s on his bucket list, to help him do all the things he desires, and to defray expenses. He loves the beach and wants to visit several, from Venice in Southern California to Poipu on Kauai. Being part of the drama experience has piqued his interest in live performances — he has attended local theater productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Little Shop of Horrors” and is looking forward to “The Lion King” in Los Angeles in November. In July, he attended the Ronald McDonald camp in Idyllwild, a camp for kids touched by cancer as well as their siblings. He has gone every year since his first diagnosis. There he swam, hiked, and renewed friendships with kids who understand what it is like to live with cancer.

Number one on TJ’s bucket list is that he “wants to live a normal life as a normal kid as long as I can.” TJ isn’t normal, though. He is extraordinary. Anger and self-pity are absent as he speaks softly of his reality. He wants all of us to know that he’s doing OK, that he doesn’t waste time worrying.

In typical Cambria fashion, our town has given back generously with time, effort and goodwill. Cambrians have given vacation rentals and airline miles as well as monetary donations.

In our long association with the drama program at CUHS, we have been rewarded by our friendships with students who have found pleasure, confidence and accomplishment within the fine arts. We have met students who have taught us as well as learned from us; TJ Miller is one of those students. Thanks to the Cambrian for printing TJ’s story, and to those of you who donate to TJ’s bucket list, or to a special account in his name at Heritage Oaks Bank.

Kit Hansen is music director and Kirk Henning is drama director for Coast Union High School plays.

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