Just over two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Novlene Williams-Mills ran away with the 400m trophy of the 2014 Diamond League. She shares her remarkable story with SPIKES.
The date was June 25, 2012 – exactly one month before the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – when the bottom crashed out of Novlene Williams-Mills’ world.
It was on that day – after earlier discovering a small lump on her breast – that the doctor delivered the devastating news she had breast cancer.
“I was in shock, I thought ‘this can't be possible’,” explains Williams-Mills, whose older sister had died of ovarian cancer in 2010 aged 38. ‘I'm aged 30. Why me?’ This can all be taken away from me with a visit to the doctors. That's all it took.”
Big decisions needed to be made, but with the unstinting support of her husband, Jameel, the quarter-miler knew surgery would come only after the London Games, and opted to carry on competing. Athletics proved a comfort blanket to cling to.
Later that week she held together her emotions to run 50.60 to land the Jamaican 400m title, and secure her place for the London Games. She finished fifth in the Olympic 400m final and helped her country claim 4x400m bronze.
Just three days after the Games, surgeons removed a small lump from her breast. A double mastectomy was to follow before a further operation to cut out the remaining cancerous cells as well as reconstructive surgery. Her final operation was on January 18, 2013.
The cancer was thankfully tamed, but for an independent and proud woman it came with a huge mental toll.
“When I had the mastectomy, it was a hugely trying time for me,” she confesses. “I had to have my friends come over to do my hair, my husband to cook dinner for me. That hurt more than anything, because I'm not used to not being able to do that. That was the worst...”
Williams-Mills started competing only three months after her final operation
Yet just three months after her fourth and final operation, Williams-Mills, who had missed the buzz of competing, returned to action at the 2013 Kansas Relays last April. She won the 400m in 51.68.
The first half of the 2013 season, however, proved tough both physically and emotionally, as at this point only a handful of close friends and family were aware of her illness.
“Most times I'd come from training, so tired, I thought I can't do this,” she explains. “My body was exhausted. I was going to the meets, many people wouldn't know [about my illness]. I was running slower times than usual and people would ask what was going on. Sometimes I would just go back to my room and cry and think ‘what am I doing?’”
Yet, in July last year, Williams-Mills, under encouragement from family and friends, decided to finally go public with her cancer battle. She made the big step to act as inspiration to other women, and to encourage them to take the mammogram check because early detection for breast cancer can save lives.
After publicly admitting her battle, she was blown away by the positive reaction both from within the athletics community and beyond.
“So many people come up to me to say ‘you're an inspiration’. At that point, I knew I was not fighting this on my own. It changed me, because I didn't know I was impacting upon so many people.”
Since undergoing treatment it has also brought about a change in the perspective of the 32-year-old, who has won four world and three Olympic medals in the 4x400m, and secured bronze [and so very nearly gold] in an epic 2007 world 400m final.
In 2007 Ohuruogu, Sanders and NWM finished within 0.05 seconds of each other
“Before [the cancer] I used to say ‘hi’ to a fellow colleague or rival, but now I really sit down and take the time to talk to them,” she explains. “I've found the time to socialise a bit more. Enjoy a joke and talk about life.”
Her fellow 400m rivals have also been a huge support.
“Francena [McCorory, world indoor champion] was telling me about a knee problem she had, but admitted that was nothing compared to what I've been through. She said I was a huge inspiration for overcoming the biggest challenge of my life. It was very uplifting to me.
“Another is Christine [Ohuruogu, double world and Olympic champion], who said to me overcoming everything I've been through brought a smile to her face.”
With a new approach to the sport, Williams-Mills decided to sensibly scale back her winter training and replaced a running session every Wednesday with yoga classes.
The practice has helped protect her body from the rigours of training, and also helped release race tension by improving her breathing. It has proved the perfect recipe for success.
Williams-Mills won four Diamond League races in 2014 and finished in the top three in her three other races on the pinnacle one-day circuit. She also claimed 4x400m gold and 400m silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Strong team - Jamaica's 4x400m women win Commonwealth gold
So can she believe how well the season as gone?
“Just being able to come back has been a great accomplishment for me,” explains the Florida-based athlete. “It is my second chance. It is a blessing.”
As for next season, as Diamond Race winner she has already been granted an invitation to next year’s world championships in Beijing. The goal in China will be to win an individual medal. Yet, as her experiences have so clearly taught her, life is far greater than the simple pursuit of chasing medals.
“I have to be thankful,” she explains. “It is an honour to be a breast cancer survivor. I look back at everything, and God has put me in this position for a reason. He has used me as a vessel to show people to never give up, and that it is possible to achieve what you set out to do.”