Finding Strength

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I didn’t want people to see me cry.

When people see you cry, they’re going to ask what’s going on, and then you have to find some story to tell. But when I’d take a shower at London’s Olympic Athlete Village during the 2012 Games, I would stand under the running water and cry alone. That shower was the only place I felt I could release my fear. Then I would come out and pretend like I was okay.

But I wasn’t. I had breast cancer. 

This is not what I signed up for. I was only 30 years old, pursuing a gold medal. Physically, I was strong, but my head was somewhere else. I tried to use the games as an escape, staying composed enough to help our 4×400 relay team win a bronze medal. But it was hard. Hanging out in the village or interacting with other athletes while warming up, I was usually fine. Cancer wasn’t coming up in conversation. Anytime I was alone, though, I thought about it. The closer I got to the finals, the more I understood how close it was to the day of my surgery. The walk from the tunnel at London’s Olympic Stadium to the starting line is about 100 meters, and with every step, cancer was on my mind. Everybody else was mentally focused and in their lane, while I was preparing for a different race that had nothing to do with track and field.

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The 4×400 was the last race of the night. When it was over, I went back to the village and finished packing. I left around five in the morning for the airport, so there wasn’t much time to celebrate. I don’t know if I could have, anyway. Winning that bronze was a bittersweet moment. Maybe this will be my last championship. My last competition. My last time wearing Jamaica’s uniform.

I just cried on the flight back home.

Three days after returning from London, I went for a lumpectomy. A week later, at my post-surgery checkup, my surgeon received test results from pathology. They worried there were still cancerous cells in my body. It’s an aggressive cancer, he said. They had to go back in and make sure they saved my life.

He recommended a mastectomy.

I had told the surgeon before my lumpectomy to make sure I still had my breast when it was over, no matter what. Now he wanted to remove it. I thought about my body, and what made me a lady. Whether my husband Jameel would see me the same way afterward. About nursing a baby one day if I became a mother.

It’s an aggressive cancer, he said. They had to go back in and make sure they saved my life.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

Jameel and I went home, looked at the pros and the cons, and at the end I came to a conclusion: What if I go back in, they take out a little bit more, then I come back out and they still have to do another surgery? I can’t live my life constantly wondering, What if?

I scheduled an appointment and said to my surgeon, “If you’re going to take one, you’re going to take both. I’m not going to live my life in fear.”

My double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery were performed in September of 2012. A week later, I received more test results from pathology. Again, they were inconclusive. I was stunned. You just took both of my breasts and you’re telling me I still have cancerous cells hanging around? What the hell is going on? My surgeon explained how the cancer in my breast was so low, it basically sat on my ribcage. We needed to make sure everything was gone. So I had a third surgery in a span of two months, followed by a fourth in January of 2013 for breast implants.

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For much of my life, “cancer” was just a word. Something unpleasant you sometimes hear people mention, but nothing more. Even as cancer impacted my family — my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and successfully battled the disease, while my oldest sister Dawn died of ovarian cancer in 2010 — I still didn’t fully understand it. Through most of their struggles, they were in Jamaica and I was training in the United States. I never saw my mom go through chemo and radiation, and how much it really tore her down. When my sister was sick, I would call, and she’d say, “I’m doing great!” Maybe she didn’t want me to worry so I could focus on my running.  It wasn’t until speaking to my brother that I understood how much pain she was actually going through.

Still, despite my family history, the thought of having cancer never really crossed my mind. It sounds naive, but I was only 30, the second-to-last of five daughters in my family. Maybe down the line when I got older it would be something I would have to think about, but not then. I didn’t really do my breast self-examinations because of my mom, or out of worry. I was told I was supposed to do them, so I did.

You see everything you were afraid of seeing before, and then realize this is really your life.

Thank God I follow directions.

The pain of a mastectomy can be unbearable. You can’t lay on your side, you can’t lay on your stomach. I couldn’t even brush my own teeth. It’s one of those pains that’s so bad, you just don’t know what to do. And as bad as the physical pain is, the mental pain is often worse, and at times, truly overwhelming. You look in the mirror and don’t even know who you are. Before the surgery, I was told I’d have drainage tubes coming out of my chest. I looked at myself and thought, Where are you possibly going to find somewhere to put them? But I was afraid to actually ask the question. The less information I had, the easier it would be for me going into surgery.

I woke up after and saw them. Two on one side, two on the other, right under my armpits. I felt like a turkey getting basted for Thanksgiving.

Even when they checked me at the hospital, I didn’t see the scars, so I didn’t know how bad everything looked until I took off my clothes at home. You go to the hospital two days before without all of those cuts and stitches. Then you’re looking in the mirror and seeing a whole different person up top. It was terrifying, and I broke down crying. In a span of a month, this is what I’ve gone to? From an elite athlete to this? You see everything you were afraid of seeing before, and then realize this is really your life.

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In London, I kept my diagnosis a secret. I didn’t think it was fair to say anything, or show my pain. I didn’t want to distract from what my teammates and coaches had come to the Olympics to do. But afterward, I still wasn’t ready to make this public, and even among my small group of family and friends that knew, there were barriers. Sometimes when they would take me to my doctor’s appointments, I had them stay in the waiting room. I wanted them to see the person they always knew, not all my scars. Everyone knew me as “Novlene, the athlete and friend.” Now, would they see me as “Novlene, the girl with breast cancer?”

I began training again in February of 2013. It was difficult. I didn’t have any muscle. No upper body strength. Treatment and recovery had cut my training time significantly. My second race post-surgery was the following May. In Jamaica, my country. My home. I finished third, which I thought was great. Still, most people didn’t know what I was going through, and some believed I didn’t run as well as I should have.

That hurt.

I really didn’t feel like myself physically until a month later when I returned to Jamaica for Nationals and won. I laid on the track and cried. Those tears weren’t about winning, but about the journey to get back there.

About a week later, I decided to open up more about my cancer. The support I received was amazing. Emails and phone calls. Messages from people who respected my willingness to speak publicly, because for so many people, cancer is something they can’t even talk about. Once I came forward and opened up about my cancer, that’s when I became truly comfortable with my new body, and my new breasts. They’re a little bigger, but for a long time I gave credit to padded sports bras and Victoria’s Secret, trying to deflect attention. Now, I had stopped worrying.

Everyone knew me as “Novlene, the athlete and friend.” Now, would they see me as “Novlene, the girl with breast cancer?”

This is me. This is who I am.

Still, despite successful moments, as a competitor, 2013 was difficult. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try again in 2014 because so much work was needed to perform the way I expect to in every race. But while the athlete in me felt I had failed, Jameel reminded me of all I had accomplished. He convinced me to give it a shot. I came back with a different mind and attitude, and that season was everything I wanted it to be. I was the IAAF Diamond League champion in the 400 meters and was ranked No. 1 in the world.

As I was recovering, sometimes I would ask, “Why me?” Now, I believe God gave me this battle so I can help others find strength. Cancer didn’t care who I was. It didn’t care about my age. It didn’t care about my gender. It didn’t care about what I did professionally. People need to understand that cancer can touch anyone, anytime, but not to lose hope. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. It just might take longer for some people to get there.

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When I got sick, I worried my illness would define me as an athlete. It didn’t. But it did teach me about how I define myself.

I always thought having breasts is one of the things that makes me a lady. But after going through cancer, I realized what makes me a lady is my strength. What makes me a lady is looking in the mirror every single day and being comfortable with my body. A lot of women have their breasts, but they’re not comfortable with themselves. They feel like something is missing, but can’t put their finger on what. Before cancer, I didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t know I could fight like this. But I’ve learned about the supernatural power inside me, the strength that allows me to face whatever lies ahead without fear.

That’s what makes me a lady. That is my message.

That is why I’m proud to be called a “survivor.”

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Novlene Williams-Mills is a three-time Olympic medalist in the 4×400 relay for Jamaica. On October 31st, to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she will be participating in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, supporting the American Cancer Society, at Orlando, Florida’s Lake Eola Park.

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