Mom Talk: An Olympic Medalist Takes On Breast Cancer & Infertility
Written by Novlene Williams-Mills
Photography by Novlene Williams-Mills
While Olympic athletes might seem invincible in many ways, track and field star and 4-time medalist Novlene Williams-Mills was tested by two huge hurdles in life beyond the track—breast cancer and infertility. Below, the Jamaica-born talent shares her decade-long story of overcoming adversity.
Imagine getting ready for one of the biggest competitions of your entire career, the Olympic Games, and being told that you have breast cancer. That is exactly what happened to me before the 2012 Olympics in London. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. At the time, I had so many questions, but failure wasn’t an option. As crazy as it may seem, I was still determined to compete in the Olympics and bring home a gold medal for Jamaica. After meeting with my doctors and undergoing numerous scans, they cleared me to compete in the trials and we agreed to schedule my mastectomy for three days after the Olympics concluded. There was nothing keeping me from competing now.
Three days after the games, it was time to try to remove the cancer. All I could think about was just hoping I would make it out of surgery alive because I was not ready to leave my husband, Jameel, behind. That surgery was the first of four surgeries because after my first, a lumpectomy, my margins did not come back clear. I went from having a lumpectomy to having a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. As if that wasn’t enough, my margins were still not clear, so the doctors had to go back to remove some more skin due to where the lump was located. The entire time I just knew I couldn’t give up. Then, finally, we got the news—all of the cancer cells were gone. I had to go in for a period of 3 months to fill the expanders that they put in to get the shape of my breasts and size and also for my scars to heal before they could go back in for the final time to put the implants in.
While going through my cancer treatments, I did not once stop to think for a moment that maybe I needed to have my eggs frozen in case I ever wanted a baby. All I was thinking about was getting the cancer out in order to save my life rather than wondering if I might ever want kids. But kids were always a part of the plan, I had always dreamed of being a mom. After overcoming cancer, I started to wonder if this dream was even possible anymore. As much as I wanted kids, I became terrified of having them because I did not want them to ever have to go through what I experienced.
So, in 2017 when I retired from competing, I went and had a conversation with my doctors to see if there was anything medically that would hinder me from having kids. Once I got the green light that it was ok, we tried for about a year with no success. That was when we were referred to Brown Fertility. We met with some of the doctors at Brown Fertility and decided that we wanted to move forward with IVF. Given my age, I did not want to waste any more time because I knew the clock was against me at that point. We went through the entire process and I was excited because I knew that it was possible for me to have a child. Unfortunately, my first round of IVF was unsuccessful. I was devastated. All those self-doubts started coming back. “What if I can’t have kids?” “Will I ever know what it’s like to be a mother?” “I already can’t breastfeed and now will I not experience motherhood at all?” Those were just some of the thoughts that were going on in my head. Looking around, so many friends were having babies, and here I was, silently suffering, just aching to experience that joy that they were having. To simply be a mom.
We decided that we were going to do another round of IVF transfer, but halfway through my treatment the doctor realized that I have some fibroids and they needed to be removed before we could continue. In April of 2019, I underwent surgery to remove my fibroids. It took months before I could do my transfer because I had to be fully healed before that could happen. In August of 2019, we did our transfer. As scary as it was, I was hopeful that it would work because if it failed I did not know how I would feel waiting that two weeks for the blood pregnancy test. It felt like I was waiting for a month. I promised myself that I would not do a test at home because if it was negative, I could not deal with the disappointment. Two weeks after my transfer day, I went in for my blood test. That was the easy part. The hard part was waiting for that call because I honestly did not know what the result was going to be.
I remember on that day I saw my phone ringing and I did not answer it because I was so scared. I figured they would just leave a message to tell me. They did indeed leave a message asking me to call them back, so I picked up the phone and made that dreaded call, not knowing what I would hear. When that nurse came on the phone with some of the other nurses to tell me I was pregnant, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was so happy and excited because I was about to give my husband a family. Fast forward a couple weeks, and we were going in to do the ultrasound. I was only expecting to hear one heartbeat, and definitely was not thinking about the possibility of more than one. To my surprise, they told me there was another sac and another heartbeat. I was so excited and scared at the same time because I was about to have not one, but two babies! I had no morning sickness, which I was happy about, the doctor’s visits went well, and I was scheduled for a cesarean birth at 37 weeks. Things changed and my c-section was moved up to 36 weeks when I delivered two handsome boys; Jamari and Jameir.
I did not know how much my life would change having those two little ones. They have been my sunshine and rainbows on the darkest days. I’m making sure I stay safe so that I can take care of them, because I honestly don’t know what I would do if anything happened to them. I honestly can say every obstacle I’ve faced has been worth it, it has prepared me for the ultimate win, to be a mother and experience parenthood with Jameel, who was right by my side throughout everything and deserves to experience what it is like to be a dad.
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