“It’s cancer”: the words no-one wants to hear

from Chasing Mavericks

What does it really mean to be superhuman? Jamaican Sprinter Novlene Williams-Mills may be just that, with her remarkable story of courage, perseverance and humility in the field of athletic endeavour: all the time being haunted by one of the biggest super villains known to humans…

Novlene Williams-Mills

I’ve often wondered what it might be like to be superhuman – though skin suits and cape combos are not really my thing. Superhuman powers, in the style of Marvel and DC comics vary from invisibility to telepathy to shape shifting. Personally, I would like to fly. Novlene does not possess any of these ‘magical’ powers but her mental strength, dignity and determination set her apart as a very special human indeed.

“It’s cancer” are the words no-one wants to hear. Especially when you are a few weeks away from competing in the most prestigious games of all time, the Olympics.

“It’s not something you imagine having at the age of 30” explains Novlene as we caught up via phone on a (very) cold autumnal afternoon in the UK but undoubtedly a warm morning in her home in Florida.

Novlene’s journey began following self-diagnosis when she found a lump on her breast. She saw two gynaecologists and was given a mammogram, something she encourages all women to get done, “It’s an uncomfortable process but bring your friend along, you don’t have to do it alone”.

Once diagnosed by the doctor as having breast cancer, Novlene had a big decision to make: stay quiet and follow her dream to compete at the Olympics or enter into treatment immediately. With the support of her husband she opted for the former. It proved the right decision, providing a significant mental and emotional benefit, “Instead of sitting at home every day watching my friends run and cry, I went, and it was a great distraction”.

It’s an uncomfortable process but bring your friend along, you don’t have to do it alone.

Novlene is now an avid campaigner for the American Cancer Society.

As I am far from an athlete, it is difficult to imagine what’s it like to compete in the Olympics. Representing your country, being watched by not only 80,000 people in the stadium but also billions of others on their TVs must bring with it incredible amounts of pressure. I’m not sure I could handle that pressure if I was in peak health, let alone carrying the secret of a potentially life-threatening illness. As Novlene is a relay runner she also had the responsibility of not letting her team mates down. My stomach turns just thinking about it.

Without anyone aware of her illness, Novlene not only competed in the 400m sprint and 4x400m relay but made it to the podium with her relay team mates after achieving bronze (in my book that’s superhuman). Novlene’s reflection is both humble and pragmatic, “I didn’t want a pity party, I wasn’t ready for people to see me as the girl who had cancer. I wasn’t ready to answer people’s questions and face their speculations as to why I was still competing”.

Novlene provides some assurance with a further explanation, “Having cancer does not automatically take away your energy and surge pain through your body, it doesn’t work like that”. So, to the rest of us, she was as fit as everyone else on the track.

I didn’t want a pity party, I wasn’t ready for people to see me as the girl who had cancer. I wasn’t ready to answer people’s questions and face their speculations as to why I was still competing.

Novlene and her teammates pose with their shiny Olympic Bronze medals in London, 2012.

Even with the medal and the distraction of the games, not surprisingly, Novlene still struggled in London; “I was crying for ages in the shower, terrified. I knew that after my final race, I would be on the next flight home for a double mastectomy”. I blanche just at the thought.

Perhaps sensing my unease, Novlene jokes about how “cancer was the last thing on my mind back then, I was like, ‘where am I going to get breasts from?!’” She soon came to realise that breasts do not define you as a woman. A salutary but vital lesson for any female, “Let them take your breasts, you can get new ones. You can get a whole new life, don’t hold onto something that can kill you”.

Novlene not only got a whole new life, she didn’t stop competing. She continued to train after her treatment and went to the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where she accomplished silver in the 400m and gold in the 4x400m relay. Many would have then sat on their laurels having proven to themselves and the world that they’d beaten cancer. Not Novlene. She qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where she medalled silver in the 4x400m relay. Who needs a superhero cape when you have that much medal ribbon around your neck?!

Let them take your breasts, you can get new ones. You can get a whole new life, don’t hold onto something that can kill you.

Winning gold at Beijing World Championships in 2015, post breast cancer.

I don’t think we are survivors of breast cancers, I see us as winners.

Currently retired from athletics and cancer free, Novlene campaigns for breast cancer awareness through annual fundraising events, speaks freely about her story and puts her survival down to athletics. “Being an athlete saved my life, I was fighting cancer but also fighting to get back on the track”.

Once a private person who didn’t want to talk about her struggles, Novlene is now helping hundreds of women across the globe become their own version of a superhuman. She sums up the fighting spirit that she and thousands of other women possess, “I don’t think we are survivors of breast cancers, I see us as winners”.

Novlene’s perception of cancer has changed since her experience, and from speaking to her, she has also changed mine. I still hope to never hear the words, “It’s cancer”, but now I hope I’ll rise to the challenge and become a winner along with Novlene. As she says, “Remember no matter what you go through you can still come out the other side”.

I also believe superhuman should be re-defined. Superhumans don’t belong in comic books and movies: they’re all around us. They are the people who can fight (non-violently) against life’s biggest obstacles and come back mentally stronger.

Novlene and women like her are the real Superhumans. It is their super powers we should aspire to; mental strength, dignity and determination.

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