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Williams-Mills - the sprinter who beat breast cancer

Jamaican athlete and Olympic medallist Novlene Williams-Mills was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer as she prepared for the 2012 London Olympic Games. She tells FRANCE 24 the story of her astonishing comeback.


Novlene Williams-Mills has been pushing her body to the very limits since childhood. The Jamaican track and field athlete’s gift for speed was rewarded with a bronze medal in the 400-metre relay at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

But Williams-Mills, despite her on track confidence, was hiding a devastating secret. On June 25, 2012, two days before the opening of the games, her gynaecologist confirmed that she had breast cancer. She decided to keep her illness a secret from the rest of the Jamaican team.

“When I found out about my illness I decided that it would be best to keep it private - I am a very private person,” she told FRANCE 24. “I don't live my life in the spotlight and I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me.”

On the track, nothing seemed amiss. The 31-year-old looked her usual concentrated self. She came fifth in the individual 400-metre event and her team took the bronze medal in the 400-metre relay.

On the podium with her team mates, Williams-Mills was all smiles. But inside she felt afraid. She didn’t know if she had just run her last race.

“It was so hard being there,” she said. “I don’t know if I really focused on the games. My mind would always go back to my surgery, praying and hoping that everything would go well.”

A very aggressive cancer

Supported by her husband Jameel, Williams-Mills launched herself into her “most difficult race” yet; her cancer battle.

Three days after the end of the Olympics, surgeons removed the tumour - but the prognosis was inconclusive.

“My surgeon told me that the cancer was very aggressive and the chance of it coming back was pretty high and that there was a chance of having it in the other breast,” she said.

Two years after her sister’s death from ovarian cancer, she chose the extreme option. Just like actress Angelina Jolie, who has also spoken out about her experience of breast cancer, Williams-Mills opted to have a double mastectomy.

“I could not live with the fear of ‘what ifs’,” she said. “I couldn’t face hearing that my cancer had come back, so I chose the best option for me to lower the chances of it coming back.”

Williams-Mills has had to learn to live with the physical reality of her changed body – a body that she had trained to reach the pinnacle of athletic success.

“The most difficult race of my life was fighting breast cancer because you don’t get any training for it,” she said. “It is really hard to get back to some level of fitness. You have to be patient.”

The comeback

But she is absolutely determined to get back in the game. Having recovered from her last operation on January 18, she launched herself into the 2013 athletics season, taking her seventh national title in the 400 metres and qualifying for the World Championships with a time of 50.01 seconds.

She is fully aware that her spectacular comeback raised eyebrows, particularly in the light of a recent doping scandal that saw her fellow Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two-time 200-metre Olympic champion, suspended by her national federation for taking a banned diuretic.

Williams-Mills insists that her return to form was natural: “People will always talk. I can’t stop them but one thing I know is that I am clean and I can’t sit and worry about what others are going to think or say.”

So what is the secret behind her astonishing comeback?

“There is no secret,” she says. “My coach and I work well together. I did the best workouts I thought I would need to get me back on the track again. When you have being doing this so long your body adapts to these things.”

Her athletic career aside, Williams-Mills is just as determined to share her experience with other women.

“I decided that this should be something to talk about, to tell young people that they need to go get their mammogram done because it can happen to anyone no matter who we are,” she says. “There are so many ladies out there that have breast cancer. I want them to know that there is still life after this ordeal. You can’t let it define who you are as a person, don't put a label on yourselves saying that because of cancer your life stops. Keep living those dreams because you can still achieve them.”

Williams-Mills is living hers – she will be in Moscow for the World Athletics Championships from August 10 to 18.

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