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Story Highlights

  • Cancer survivor, Novlene Williams-Mills, is continuing the fight on behalf of others, who suffer from the disease.
  • The 2014 400-metre Diamond League champion is using her platform as one of the world’s elite athletes, to draw attention to the disease, by speaking out about her experience, and to inspire and motivate others with cancer not to give up the fight.
  • Williams-Mills, who got the cancer diagnosis on June 25, 2012, while in the height of preparing for the London Olympics, tells JIS News that the news almost shattered her Olympic dreams.

Cancer survivor, Novlene Williams-Mills, is continuing the fight on behalf of others, who suffer from the disease.

The 2014 400-metre Diamond League champion is using her platform as one of the world’s elite athletes, to draw attention to the disease, by speaking out about her experience, and to inspire and motivate others with cancer not to give up the fight.

“I want them to know that they should not let this crazy disease define who they are and who they want to become, because at the end of the day, cancer does not care who we are. It does not care about our race, gender or age, all we have to do is fight this crazy battle because if we don’t it will win,” she tells JIS News.

Williams-Mills, who got the cancer diagnosis on June 25, 2012, while in the height of preparing for the London Olympics, tells JIS News that the news almost shattered her Olympic dreams.

“No longer was I getting ready for the Olympics, but I was getting ready for my own race with cancer. It was something that I had not prepared or trained for,” she says, in looking back on the day one phone call changed her life.

The 2014 400-metre Diamond League champion says it was news she never expected at the age of 30 and in great shape. The diagnosis left her experiencing a range of emotions including betrayal, anger, sadness and denial. “I felt like my own body had betrayed me, when you work out and train as hard as I do this should not be possible” she says.

Her fervent wish was that the phone would ring again with a call to say that it had all been a mistake.

That second call never came, and the young Jamaican athlete, who had up to that point, had been focused on her intense preparation for what was to be Jamaica’s best ever showing at the Olympic Games, which were six weeks away, had a tough decision to make.

“I just could not see myself as a cancer patient but there it was right in my face and there were two things I could do. I could either feel sorry for myself or I could stand up and fight. Well I chose to fight,” says the diminutive quarter miler.

Her first step in the fight was to go to the Olympics and do what she loved if even for a short time. She knew that it was probably ill-advised but with the encouragement of her husband and friends to do what made her happy, she continued competing.

A few days after her diagnosis, she won the 400-metre race at the National Senior Trials earning herself a place on the Jamaican team to the Games of the XXX (thirtieth) Olympiad in London.

With the heart of a champion Williams-Mills competed in the games against all odds  and placed 5th in the 400m final and also helped to win for her country a bronze medal in the 4x400m relay.

“I then knew that making the trip to London was all worth it. There I was, spending that moment on the award stand with my teammates, not knowing if I had just run my final race,” she says.

She notes that the moment was bittersweet because she knew her biggest race, the race for life, was yet to begin.

On August 15, three days after the games ended, she made her first trip to the operating room where she removed a small lump from her breast. After that surgery, she finally began to feel some amount of relief that the end was in sight, only to get the news one week later, that her results were inconclusive, which she realized, really meant that there was more to come.

In discussing options with her surgeon and her husband the dreaded word mastectomy entered the conversation and her heart sank. That which she had considered to be a last resort was now looking like her best or perhaps only choice for survival and it was a heavy burden to bear.

“The idea of a mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast) was scary because this is what makes me a lady. I wondered what I would look like. I want to have kids one day and realised immediately that I would not be able to nurse a baby,” she says.

Within a month she was back on the surgeon’s table for a double mastectomy, which was to be followed by reconstructive surgery.

“After finishing this painful surgery I said to myself, it’s all over, I feel like a winner but the celebration came to an end two weeks later when I got back my results,” she states. Once again she was met with the word that had become the enemy, INCONCLUSIVE.

“At this point I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. I felt that the devil was winning and there was nothing I could do about it,” says the Olympian who had prayed fervently that the disease would not win.

She was soon advised that another surgery was necessary to ensure that the cancerous cells along with some skin were completely removed. It was only after this surgery was done that she received the good news she had been waiting for.

“Finally there was some good news. Everything came back clear and Oh yes I celebrated! Finally, I felt like I was winning the race I was running,” she exclaims.

In January 2013, she made a fourth trip to the operating room and within three months was back on the track. She shares that it was not an easy road.

“There were days that I thought I could not make it. I would say to my husband that I cannot do this anymore and he would remind me to take it one day at a time,” she recalls.

Later that year, Williams-Mills won her 7th national title, which was her ticket to the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. She broke her silence on her cancer journey a week later and vowed to dedicate her races in Moscow to all breast cancer survivors.

There began her journey of advocacy and her personal campaign to motivate Cancer survivors to hold on to their dreams.

She does a breast cancer walk every year in October with friends including new friends, who are cancer survivors. They meet before the walk in their decorated pink bras and talk about life and how they can help each other.

Today, the athlete is back to “business as usual” even though there are some tasks she finds difficult to perform due to the loss of some upper body muscles from the surgeries.

She has also changed her diet, and stays away from sweets, using honey instead of sugar. She also avoids fried food and red meat.

Her biggest takeaways from the experience are to not take life for granted and to keep fighting.

The journey may seem like it will not end but there is always an end. You just have to fight your way to it,” she says.

According to the Jamaica Cancer Society, breast cancer accounts for 29.4 per cent of all cancers in Jamaica with an incidence rate of 43.1 per 100, 000. It is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Jamaican women over the age of 25.

Statistics have shown that two thirds of all cases are in women who are 55 years and older, while women under 45 years account for one eighth of all cases.

The Jamaica Cancer society encourages all women and men to do monthly breast self examinations, to visit their doctors and do annual clinical examinations and all women age 40 and older to do an annual mammogram.

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