Commentary

Novlene Williams-Mills on competing with cancer

Originally Published: June 29, 2017
By Morty Ain | ESPN The Magazine

Novlene Williams-Mills, Body Issue, ESPN The MagazineMarcus Smith for ESPN

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today! 

Olympic sprinter Novlene Williams-Mills understands the importance of time. After graduating from the University of Florida in 2004, the Jamaican-born track star helped her home country medal in the 4x400-meter relay at the Athens Olympics, then again in Beijing in 2008. But in 2012, just weeks before the London Games, Williams-Mills, then 30, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She endured four surgeries -- and went on to win two more Olympic medals. Today, Williams-Mills is an elite, cancer-surviving athlete. She posed for this year's Body Issue in order to share her powerful story. This is it, in her own words:


I received my diagnosis in June 2012. I went to my gynecologist for a checkup and I was like, "I feel a small lump in my breast." When I got the call that it was cancer, it was the week during the Jamaican nationals to qualify for the Olympics. I had gotten the call I think on Monday or Tuesday, and I leave for Jamaica the next day. I was like, "OK, they're going to call me back and be like, 'This is the wrong results we have. That was somebody else.'" But it never happened. It was a month before the [London] Olympics.

I went to Jamaica, and to be honest, I went into the national championship and I just went about my business. I was just trying to carry on. What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to just sit at home? One of the things I asked was, "Can I continue to run until we're ready to do the surgery?" [My doctor] said yes. I needed something to distract me, because I know sitting at home I was just going to worry. I was going to cry. You know, my husband was going to work, all my friends at that time were competing, so I had nobody to talk to at home.

When I came back from Jamaica, that's when I got the final diagnosis. I sat in the doctor's office and I listened to everything he had to say. I didn't cry until I went outside. That's when I really fall apart. I felt like a baby. I was like, "This can't be real. It's impossible."

You know, I work out hard, I eat right. I've done everything to keep a healthy body. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do none of that. And for this thing to come in my body and take control of it ... You know when you tell a friend something and they betray you? That's how I feel. Like this thing just stabbed me right in the back. Like it just didn't care who I was. It just wants to take control of everything and didn't ask permission. It didn't know that I have things to do.


Novlene Williams-Mills, Body Issue, ESPN The MagazineMarcus Smith for ESPN

I kept it private. I like to keep my life out of the track and field spotlight. I feel like the less people know, the better for me. I'm really a very private person. And at that point I didn't know how I was going to deal with anything. My family is in Jamaica, so I only have my husband and my friends as my support system here [in the U.S.]. For me, it was like, "OK, what's life going to be like? Am I going to be laid up in a bed for a couple of months? What's the best way I can deal with this, where I can get my stuff together, where I don't have 50 phone calls a day?" For me, keeping it outside of the public eye, outside of athletics, I think that was the best thing for me, and I think it was the best thing so I could recover much faster.

It was hard being in London at the Games when the rest of the world didn't know. The moment I have to step on the track, I know everybody is going for that medal. Me? I'm counting the exact days until my surgery. It was like a weight on my shoulder that I couldn't get off, no matter how hard I tried to put it in the back of my mind for these couple of races. It was just something that kept weighing me down every time I stepped on that line to compete.

Just being in the village, you're around teammates, and you don't want them to see you crying. I was the team captain for the Jamaica team. I don't want people to ask me what's going on. So I would spend a little bit longer in the shower just crying, just sobbing, because I'm like, "OK, all right, I let it out. I let all the emotions out."

For me, [competing] was a distraction. It was about getting there. I didn't want to answer 50 phone calls of: Why did I pull out of the Games? Did I get hurt? I already qualified for the Games, might as well go out there and see what happens. I was still able to put it aside, to be like, "OK, I'm wearing the Jamaica colors. My teammates need me. I have to go out there and give them a fair shot because I know they have run their hearts out in the other three lanes and I can't let them down."

We won the bronze [in the 4x400-meter relay]. I literally got the medal, came back to the village and packed. I think I left about 4 or 5 that morning, straight to Atlanta. I remember being on that plane, just crying. Because I know that the moment I step off -- I think it was about three days before my surgery -- I know I have an appointment, and I know, "OK, I got to get this done. Got to get prepped, got to do this." It was reality really setting in. I was about to go under the knife for the very first time.


After the Olympics, I was in surgery three days later. The first surgery I did was a lumpectomy. Because before everything, I told my doctor, "Whatever you do, I need to come out with my breasts!" [Laughs.] That's all I was thinking about: "Lord, please don't let me lose my breasts." But then we did the surgery. We thought everything went well. Then I went back for the post-op and [the doctor] informed me that my margins weren't clear. It was heart-wrenching to hear. He was like, "We need to go in and do another surgery because we really need to get all the rest of the cancerous cells."

He shows [the scans] to my husband. He was like, "If it was my wife, I would ask her to do a mastectomy." Now, that was the furthest thing from my mind, and I'm like, "I don't want to do that." But just sitting and listening to him, getting more information, I went home with my husband and we talked about it. I was like, "I can't keep going back in the operating room. I can't. This is emotionally wrecking. I can't be selfish. I have to remember that I have people out there who love and care about me, and I don't want to go back in and they take some out, and then, you know, a couple of years down the line I may end up back with cancer."

So I went back to my doctor and I told him, "OK, we're going to do the mastectomy, but we're going to do a double mastectomy. Take both. If we're going to take one, just go ahead and take both."

Maybe a month after my first surgery, we went back in after the double mastectomy and they told me my margins still weren't clear. I was devastated. I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." I felt like I was fighting a losing battle at this point. What else am I supposed to do? I mean, I gave you the breasts! What else do you need? [Laughs.]

But then he explained to me: The lump was sticking to my rib cage. We still have a problem. So we went back in and he removed some of the skin and stuff. Then we came back out with a clean margin in January of 2013.

I did reconstructive surgery when I did the double mastectomy. My plastic surgeon explained everything that was going to take place. I was going to have the drainage tube. It was terrifying. But once he explained everything, I think that was when I was more confident. Nobody has to know that they're not mine until I'm ready to tell them: The real ones tried to kill me.

My battle scars are my cancer scars.

- Novlene Williams-Mills

But one thing he said was, "Don't go on the Internet and read what other people say. Because everybody has a different story, and some people's stories are horrible." Well, you know, as a curious person, I went on the Internet, just reading some people's stories. I'm like, "Oh my Lord Jesus, this is awful. If I'm going to get through this surgery, I have to stay off the Internet. I get to go through my own experience."

Was it horrible? Yes. I felt like a turkey that was getting basted every time I had a new drainage tube. Every time I go in, I have an expander just to get me to the size of my breasts. They have to put in saline. I was feeling like I was being pumped. It was horrible. But I get it. Some experiences, when you get to the other side, you get back to the person you want to be. You look in the mirror and you see all these scars. This is a body that you're used to so much and then one day you have all these scars on your body. And, you know, that's your story. I had to be like, "This is who I am now. These are the scars that make me up."

Sometimes you've just got to take a bigger step to get where you want to be. Sometimes you've just got to fight a little bit harder. Seeing those scars, I'm like, "This is what makes me now. Some people are going to have battle scars. My battle scars are my cancer scars."


The first couple of months [after my surgery], I wasn't planning on returning for the 2013 season. I was like, "There's no way I can do this." Because normally we'd start training about October or November 2012. I was still going through surgery at that time. I don't think I returned to training until about February 2013. So I didn't have background training. I was like, "I'll just practice, see how it goes, and whatever happens, happens. If I can't do this, then I won't."

There were days when I would go to practice and I didn't feel like I was accomplishing what I used to be accomplishing in practice. And I would come home and I would cry, and I would be like, "I can't do this." Some of my friends and my husband would be like, "You have to remember that you went through something that none of these athletes have been through. You've got to give your body time. Your body went through trauma." But I was like, "I don't have time. My job doesn't allow for times like this."

To other people, that was Novlene performing a low standard. They didn't know what was going on. And it hurt. It hurt when people be like, "What's going on with her?" I just want to say to them, "If you knew what I've been through, you don't have nothing to say." But I wasn't ready yet. I wasn't ready to let the world know what I been through.

I think it had to be maybe in the 2014 season when I started [feeling like myself again]. During that season was when I really got my background training, getting everything back to how I wanted to -- well, as normal as I used to be. That's when I kind of started feeling, like, "OK, this is the old Novlene coming back."

Before cancer, I used to train five days a week. When I came back, I told my coach, "Listen, we only do it four days a week. I do Monday, Tuesday. I need Wednesday off. I come back Thursday, Friday. I need to rest [laughs]. I don't need to push my body through all of this. I have to listen to what my body's saying."

Everything I look at, I'm like, 'It's a second chance for me.' And I'm enjoying every moment of it.

- Novlene Williams-Mills

Before cancer, I would think, "OK, to make me a lady, you have to have your breasts. You have to have this, you have to have that. Now I realize that what makes me a lady is this strong person that I look at every single day in the mirror. It's the courage; it's the strength; it's the fighter that I have in me that when I wake up every single day, I live to fight another day.

After cancer, everything I look at, I'm like, "It's a second chance for me." So every time I go to do something track-related, I try to give it 110 percent. Because I feel like a lot of people don't get second chances and I did. And I'm enjoying every moment of it. Because after 2012, to be honest, when I ran that race in London I was like, "I don't know if I've run my final race." And here am I, five years after, still going and still doing what I love to do.

I tell people, "This is my hot season. When I walk off that track, I don't want to be remembered as Novlene, the girl who had cancer. I still want to be remembered as one of the lead 400-meter runners out there. When the results come up, I need to see my name up there in the lights. "OK, this is the girl who fought through every possible thing and came back at the top of her game."


For me, the hardest thing I've dealt with was, "Are you ever going to talk about your story?" And for the longest time, I would tell them no, because I was like, "What am I ever going to say that they haven't heard from someone else? It's another person with cancer, who cares?"

But it's more that you have this platform. You are an athlete. When I finally did, the response I get from people is how I inspire them, how I motivate them. I didn't realize there are so many people out there who go through so much stuff. I have no regrets to this day. Was it scary? Yes. Because I didn't know how people were going to react. I didn't want the athletes to look at me as, "Oh, she's the one who has cancer." I don't want no side eyes. I didn't want people to treat me differently. But I have never got that to this day, and I respect that.

No one else can tell you how to fight your battle. All I can say is, when you feel like giving up, just push a little bit harder. It's not going to be easy. You're going to have rough days. But giving up is easy. Fighting every single day is harder. I have to be that survivor of my own battle. I have to be a survivor of cancer.

Novlene Williams-Mills, Body IssueMarcus Smith for ESPN

For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki

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