Carolina Panthers’ running back DeAngelo Williams is known for making a huge impact on and off the football field. In 2009, five years after his mother, Sandra Hill, was diagnosed with breast cancer, Williams says he was instrumental in convincing the NFL to allow players to wear pink cleats. Since then, every October the NFL goes “pink” to bring more breast cancer awareness and raise funds for the American Cancer Society. However, when Hill’s breast cancer returned in 2010, Williams admits that he didn’t fully understand the magnitude of her diagnosis: she had metastatic breast cancer (MBC), which meant that the cancer was incurable because it had spread to another part of her body—her liver to be exact, which is what ultimately killed Hill last May. She was 53 years old.
Williams said that although his family has a strong history of breast cancer, neither he nor his two sisters inherited the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, so he can’t pass it down to his two daughters. But, he is more susceptible to getting other types of cancer so he doesn’t drink or smoke. Wanting to increase his knowledge specifically about MBC, Williams conducted research and connected with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance (MBC Alliance). The MBC Alliance, which represents 29 cancer organizations, works to improve the lives and outcomes of people living with metastatic breast cancer. Earlier this month, the MBC Alliance convened for the National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day in New York City to reveal the results of their new report: Changing the Landscape for People Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer. Williams was one of the guest speakers at the event, and shared his mom’s story.
Sporting pink dyed hair in honor of Hill, Williams stood resolutely at the podium and spoke to a captivated audience of mostly representatives of the MBC Alliance. A professed “momma’s boy," Williams shared some of the last conversations that he had with Hill. He said that she had come to terms with her impending death because she had lived three years longer than her four sisters—all of whom died of breast cancer. He recalled his mother saying:” ‘I lived a great life. Don’t worry about me. I’m worried about you guys 'cause I know where I’m going.’” He vowed that day to be on the frontline to educate the public about MBC because most people don’t understand what it is. “I knew then that day breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer had just found one of their greatest enemies because I know that we’re gonna find a cure.”
Shortly after Hill’s death, Williams penned a powerful essay about her battle with breast cancer, and his ongoing efforts to bring more awareness about the disease. See excerpt:
I remember the summer when my mom finally told me about her diagnosis. I was less than a year away from the NFL. She joked that she elected to have the surgery after the football season because “your offseason is my offseason.” That’s how she was—fiercely protective of me and my interests. After I hurt my ankle during a high school game, my mom ran from the bleachers and “jumped” over the fence (she probably didn’t jump, but that’s the way it was described to me). She was the first person I saw when I got back to the bench, and she said, “What’d they do to my baby!?” To which I said, “Hey, Mama, go back in the stands!”
Sandra Kay Hill is the biggest reason I’ve been able to enjoy eight NFL seasons, going on nine with the Panthers. My two sisters—Kinya, 34, and Garlanda, 26—and I can trace all of our personal and professional successes back to her love and support growing up in Wynne, Arkansas. The byline on this column reads DeAngelo Williams, but these aren’t my words alone. Everything I say here is an extension of her voice, her strength and her courage.
Follow survivor and journalist Khadijah Carter on Twitter @kcreports