Novlene Williams-Mills is a three-time Olympic medalist for Jamaica in the 4×400 relay — and a breast cancer survivor. She told espnW her story.
There’s nothing quite like winning an Olympic medal for your country. After years of dedication, that hardware signifies the ultimate finish line. But in London in 2012, I simply felt numb.
Immediately after securing a third-place finish in the 4×400 relay with my Jamaican teammates, I flew back to my home base in the United States. I went from the medal stand to an operating table in the span of three days. Celebrating would have to wait. I was a 30-year-old Olympic athlete, and I had breast cancer.
I’ll never forget the day of my diagnosis: June 25, 2012. About six weeks prior, I had asked my gynecologist to take a look at a small lump during my annual checkup. He said it was probably nothing, but scheduled a mammogram to be safe. Even with his reassurance, I cried all the way to that next appointment. My sister passed away of ovarian cancer four years ago. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. I’ve seen how vicious the disease can be, and I was so scared it would be me next.
Novlene Williams-Mills competed at the London Olympics just one month after she received her breast cancer diagnosis. She says the experience was “a blur.”
Because the lump was low, near my ribcage, the mammogram was inconclusive, but a follow-up biopsy would show that it was indeed cancer. I received the call from the doctor’s office as I was driving home from practice, on that awful day in June. I told my husband right away, but I couldn’t bear to tell anyone else. I still needed to process it all.
Even as my head was spinning, I decided to fly out the next morning, as scheduled, to compete at the Jamaican nationals. I called my mom when I got there, but I still didn’t have the courage to tell her. I couldn’t get the words out, so we talked about the competition coming up and other, random things.
Thanks to a lifetime of practice, I knew how to go through the motions. I ended up winning my sixth national title in the 400 meters, earning a spot on the Olympic team that would be held in less than a month. I can hardly remember the competition. When I watch it, it feels like I’m watching someone else.
I managed to use that same autopilot mentality as I raced in London. The track was my escape route, allowing me to set aside the fear I felt and focus on what I needed to do to run. People would ask, “What’s going on? You don’t seem like yourself.” I would just say, “I’m doing good.”
But I wasn’t doing well, and no one but my family, coach and closest friends knew what was really going on. I’m a private person, and I still wasn’t ready. It all felt too raw.
I somehow won my third Olympic medal in London, but I skipped the closing ceremonies to make it to my scheduled lumpectomy. I remember sitting in my surgeon’s office with my husband after the procedure. I heard the words “aggressive” and “mastectomy,” and not much more. I felt betrayed by my own body — like it was trying to kill me. I risked recurrence if I decided to keep my breasts, so the decision was clear.
After the double mastectomy I felt like a turkey being basted, with bandages and drainage tubes everywhere. I’d gone from an elite athlete to one who needed help with the simplest of tasks in just a few weeks, and it’s hard to put into words how difficult that was for me. My friends and family did an incredible job of cooking, cleaning and even doing my hair, and they supported me unconditionally as I worked to heal what felt like a failing body.
Novlene Williams-Mills once kept her cancer battle a secret, but now she shares her story with other women and completes fundraisers for the cause.
I had my fourth and final procedure, the plastic surgery to put in implants, on Jan. 18, 2013, and competed in the Kansas Relays three months later. That might have been a little crazy, but I wasn’t about to take it slow.
At that point, I was still getting used to my new breasts. They were larger than before the surgery, and I remember wearing multiple shirts in an attempt to cover them up. When girls mentioned that my breasts looked bigger, I told them it must have been that great push-up bra I got at Victoria’s Secret! I wasn’t ashamed, but I still wasn’t ready to share my experience. I didn’t want the attention, and I certainly didn’t want to be pitied.
As I got back into training and racing full time, I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure my body could do it anymore, and my running times were so slow. Sometimes I would want to give up — I’d sit alone, crying and wondering why I was trying to do this at all. It felt painfully slow, but I began to make peace with my new body, and running started to click again.
Over time, my friends and family convinced me that my story could be an inspiration, and I might be able to help other women who are battling breast cancer. They were right. I went public one year after my diagnosis and received so many texts, calls and Facebook messages of support from friends, as well as from women in similar situations to my own.
Now, as I sit here, a few weeks after lacing up my spikes for the last competition in 2014, I can honestly say that I never thought a season like this one was possible. Two years ago, I couldn’t dream of winning two medals at the Continental Cup, a goal I accomplished this September. I feel strong, I feel proud, and most of all I feel so thankful.
I used to wonder, Why me? But when people I had never met told me how I had encouraged them, I realized God gave me this battle to help others. My perspective has been forever changed. There are so many people who struggle with breast cancer, and all sorts of other health issues. Now I know that there is always light, it’s just sometimes hard to find at first.
Maybe I’ve learned it the hard way, but it’s never been more true: I’ll never ever give up, and I’ll never stop fighting, no matter what happens in my life.