Cracking the Cure!

One year ago this month, Loudoun parents, Mark and Ellyn Miller, lost their daughter to a brain tumor the size of a walnut. It wasn’t a fair fight. Gabriella was just 10 years old, and the childhood cancer she fought is on a winning streak. More and more kids are being diagnosed with childhood cancers, and seven kids die each day. But the research dollars just aren’t there to smash these walnuts (tumors).  

Only 4 percent of cancer research funding is dedicated to kids. And childhood cancers will affect 43 families – today. Enter Mark and Ellyn Miller. Their family’s Smashing Walnuts Foundation is on a mission to turn that trend – and find a way to count down from today’s 43.


While Gabriella was undergoing treatment, she and her family visualized “smashing” her walnut sized tumor by actually smashing a walnut every night – with a frying pan. Walnuts are now smashed at the foundation events by kids, parents and celebrities as a message to us all that cancer isn’t something we toy with – we need to take a figurative frying pan to it with some muscle behind it.

That muscle is awareness and money. Ellyn Miller says she feels Gabriella’s little hand on her back every morning pushing her to do everything she can to win the fight. She and Mark work tirelessly to honor their little girl, but they’re doing it for OUR kids. The next parent whose child is diagnosed will have access to better information, support and medical expertise, thanks to the Millers.

Gabriella was a force during the 11 months she lived after her diagnosis. She accomplished so much during that time that Ellyn uses an 11-month planning “calendar” for their  foundation. If one little girl undergoing chemo and radiation can spread the message so effectively in 11 months, Ellyn asserts we shouldn’t need the full 12 to achieve a year’s worth of accomplishments.


So in one 11-month year, what can one determined family accomplish? It’s all here on this timeline – along with a preview of the Smashing Walnuts Foundation vision for 2015 and beyond. Impressive. 

October ’13

Eleven months after her diagnosis, Gabriella passes away. Her memorial service had 3,000 people and 75,000 handmade tissue paper flowers (which are now all over the country to raise awareness about childhood cancer).

November ’13

House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, calls the Millers to ask if he can rename a pending bill, “The Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act”. His law makes $126 million available to the National Institutes of Health over the next 10 years for childhood disease research.

December ’13

The research act is passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Washington Redskins Foundation held a “Chalk Talk” to support the Smashing Walnuts Foundation. Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Ryan Kerrigan and Pierre Garcon smashed walnuts with Gabriella’s younger brother, Jake.


January ’14

At Gabriella’s insistence, a celebration of her birthday carries on without her. The inaugural “Cracking The Cure Gala,” event raises over $65,000 for the Smashing Walnuts Foundation.

February ’14

Ellyn, Mark and Jake visit Capitol Hill to persuade legislators to pass the research act.

March ’14

The research act is passed by the U.S. Senate with unanimous consent.

April ’14

President Obama signs the research act into law with the Millers by his side.

The Millers host the second annual “Walkin’ with Gabriella Walk-a-Thon.”


May ’14

Ellyn is the keynote speaker at a local Girl Scout Bridging Ceremony. She talks about Gabriella, cancer and how each child can make a huge difference in the world.

Ellyn gives the commencement speech at Shenandoah University, where Gabriella was granted an honorary college degree two weeks before she died.

June ’14

Gabriella’s close friend, childhood cancer advocate, Tattoo Tom Mitchell, runs a 100-mile foot race and raises $80,000 that he shares between the Smashing Walnuts Foundation and his own nonprofit

July ’14

Ellyn works with the foundation volunteers to develop a long-term strategic plan for the .org. Goal: raise $126 million for childhood cancer research to match the federal funding.

The Millers learn the funding for the research act was not appropriated and head to Capitol Hill to be sure it’s done next term.

August ’14

The Smashing Walnuts Foundation makes its first grant – $100,000 – to researchers at Children’s National Health System. The money funds Dr. Javad Nazarian and his work with Gabriella’s donated tumor tissue. His findings are a true breakthrough about how these brain tumors can metastasize

Tarara Winery promotes the foundation. Ellyn speaks at each of their Saturday night summer concerts.

September ’14

The foundation is a sponsor of the “Curefest Welcome Event” at Nationals Park, and Ellyn is keynote speaker at “Curefest” on the Washington Mall in D.C. She  plans to shave her head during her speech (check out the pictures at!


Q & A –

Getting to know the Millers –

Mark, Ellyn and Jake give us a glimpse…



What is a memory of Gabriella that makes you smile?

Ellyn:  When Gabriella was 4, she was struggling to open a jar and said: “I can’t open this [expletive] thing!” I said, “Where on earth did you learn that word?” Without a pause she said, “Daddy.” I proceeded to wash her mouth out with soap. The following day Mark was doing something and said, “Damn.” Gabriella ran and grabbed the bar of soap and stuck it in her dad’s mouth. That story always makes me laugh so hard.

Mark:  I have a great memory of 9-year-old Gabriella sitting at the computer with her 4-year-old brother – she was using a program to teach him math.

What’s your favorite part of hosting foundation events?

Ellyn:  At the end of every event, we always smash walnuts. Usually breaking things is not allowed, but it is so gratifying to smash a walnut to smithereens. I encourage everyone to try it!

Mark:  I’m so amazed at how many people show up to support Gabriella’s memory!

How do you have fun as a family?

Ellyn:  For years I have asked my family for once-in-a-lifetime experience gifts. We’ve done some fun things like going to the zoo, museums and shows. Gabriella’s favorite was seeing Les Miserables.

Mark:  I like playing cards and board games. Then there’s always jumping on the trampoline and going to sporting events.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Ellyn:  In addition to my family, the work our team of volunteers is doing at Smashing Walnuts Foundation. We are carrying on the work Gabriella started and establishing the foundation as a major player for raising awareness of the prevalence of childhood cancer and a source of funding for childhood brain cancer research.

Mark:  Raising two kids who are complimented at every turn!

Who would you like to smash walnuts with next?

Ellyn:  Steve Case – his brother had brain cancer, and he is a member of our greater community. Taylor Swift has been so kind and would help us reach the youth audience. Bill Gates and Beyoncé would help us raise awareness with two very different but highly influential audiences. Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith whose first wife had brain cancer and, Neil Armstrong, who lost his daughter, Karen, to brain cancer. Francis Collins, head of NIH and Harold Varmus, head of National Cancer Institute – they determine childhood cancer budgets. After the bill signing with President Obama, I gave him a walnut, and he said he would smash it that evening with his family. I believe he did.

Mark:  George W. Bush and Bono. 

Jake: LeBron James, David Beckham, Johnny Football, the inventor of Wii®, Mario, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Birdman from the Miami Heat, the stars of WWF and Rocky Balboa!


How Can I Help? 

We all – no matter how old or young – can help!

Become aware – visit and check out their great resources. Donate while you’re there…it’s just a click.

Follow Smashing Walnuts on social media for updates on their events – and then participate!

Plan a fundraiser in support of the foundation – great option for Scouts and community service!


About WF Staff

Washington FAMILY Staff

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