“Don’t give up.”
Those thoughts frequently channeled out the fear or inevitable negativity floating around the mind of Di’Janai “DJ” Williams, a teenager who was dealing with rounds of chemotherapy treatments from a cancer diagnosis she learned of just upon starting a new chapter in her life as a student-athlete for the Coastal Carolina women’s basketball team. Williams found out in September 2015, just prior to the start of preseason practice last season that she had a rare form of cancer – a teratoma of the ovary – that needed to be treated right away.
“The doctor came in, because I had surgery and they came back and said my pathology report was positive,” Williams recalled. “At first, it didn’t register. I kind of just heard him, but for a second the world stopped moving. I didn’t know what to do.”
Plans to play basketball – a game Williams was so fond of and loved since she was 5 years old – were put on hold. She would receive a medical redshirt her freshman year and began fighting the perils of that diagnosis and the chemo treatments that followed as she went back to her home state of California.
Cancer doesn’t discriminate and takes a toll on everyone it touches, something the then-18-year-old Williams found out. However, it also set the stage for her to realize just how big of a fighter she is.
“Going from being on a college campus and your life is looking up, and you’re finally living your dreams to, ‘You have cancer,’ and having to go home and be hooked up to machines and stuff was tough,” she said. “It was very hard watching my hair fall out, my skin change, my appetite disappear. [My family] held me up the very best they could, but inside I still felt sad and I missed the game so much. I couldn’t really have any physical activity. It was very hard; there were a lot of nights where I just cried.”
Williams’ diagnosis was just the beginning of a long battle, one she willed herself to win. And she was never alone in doing so with her mother, Karen Butler, and family by her side the whole time and a large web of support from her teammates, friends, teachers and even strangers.
It was Butler, though, who was Williams’ rock.
“I called my mom when I found out, and she was very positive. She never let me say, ‘I can’t do this.’ As soon as I told her, she was like, ‘You’re going to be OK. We’re going to get you back home and we’re going to be there.’ She just held me down, and – like I said for a moment the world stopped spinning – it made it so much easier,” Williams said. “I knew I wasn’t by myself. I knew I could call my friends, my coach or my family anytime I felt sad, or felt like I couldn’t do this. I admit, I had times I felt like life wasn’t worth living anymore. But they were like, ‘No, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to play basketball again.’ And I never let that go.”
Williams is one of eight siblings and has four brothers and three sisters. They, along with Butler, kept drilling the positive thoughts into her mind and kept her active the whole time.
“My mom would come in and she’s like, ‘Hey. Nuh-uh. Let’s get up. We’re going to do something and I’m not going to let you sit here and feel sorry.’ She did so much for me,” Williams said. “My family was always there to make sure I stayed active and they made sure I was doing stuff to keep my mind off things. We had family get-togethers and even if it was just dinner, they never made me feel alone. When I was at the hospital, someone was there. Someone was always there. Someone was always contacting me. They never let me sulk; they never let me get down about it.”
And while Williams received an outpouring of support, she was also doling out love and compassion to those close to her. If someone needed a shoulder to lean on, Williams was there. It’s just part of her nature, CCU coach Jaida Williams said.
“DJ has a joyous spirit about her. She brings joy to everyone who meets her. Even being diagnosed last season, she never got down and through chemo and through everything else, she was still always available via text message, via phone call or via FaceTime. And she was always sending positive messages to our staff and our team,” said Williams, who is not related to DJ Williams. “So to be able to have her go from that and literally having basketball nearly taken away from her – it really makes you value the game and value everything that much more.”
It didn’t take long before DJ Williams was back where she wanted to be: the hardcourt.
She was already a big part of the team, having been named to the Chants’ leadership council and joining remotely via FaceTime when the group met. But Williams re-joined her teammates physically in January of last year, just four months removed her diagnosis. She couldn’t play, of course, but that didn’t stop her from making an immediate impact on the team through her support and love and just her presence.
“Gosh, seeing her on the sidelines, still having a smile on her face while she was going through everything just motivated everyone,” Chants junior guard Jas Adams said. “We all knew she would be coming back, and she certainly did too. But, you know, it was hard seeing something she loves so dearly taken from her like that and having to literally fight to get it back. But that’s what she did and we were all there for her while she was there for us, too.”
Confidence and determination were big factors in DJ Williams’ plan to return to uniform while tons of thoughts raced through her mind as she sat on the sidelines alongside her teammates last season in their final year as members of the Big South Conference.
The next season would mean a new beginning, a new chapter for both her and the program: Coastal Carolina was joining the Sun Belt Conference.
Williams remained positive, knowing she could be an integral part of the program’s inaugural season in the more robust conference. That helped dispel the many thoughts of what she maybe could have done had she played for the Chants last season when they went 12-18 overall and 7-13 in Big South play before falling to Campbell in the first round of their final Big South Conference tournament.
“Just missing the game and seeing my team play and where I would fit in and just wanting to play with my teammates,” Williams said of what motivated her. “And it was bigger than me. I’ve always loved basketball and just getting back I never lost focus. I just always said, ‘I am going to play college basketball. I am not going to let cancer stop me.’ ”
Fall rolled around, and that meant Williams would finally hit the court again, cancer-free. She saw her first action in the team’s home opener, a 66-50 win over North Carolina Central in which she saw five minutes of action but didn’t record any stats. It didn’t matter, she was back.
It took a bit of adjustment, but Williams eventually found her spot with the team and has helped spark the team the way she has always wanted to: with her basketball skills.
And it was exactly when the team needed her. When Sun Belt Conference play rolled around Williams still had yet to score in double figures.
However, she put up a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds in the Chants’ first conference game, albeit in an 83-62 loss to Texas State. Williams then put up a career-high 21 points to go along with four rebounds, two assists and two steals two games later.
Williams has proven that she can contribute, which she has done mightily during conference play. She is averaging 8.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.6 steals in 19.8 minutes per game in the nine Sun Belt contests she’s played in as the team sits at 9-12 overall and 4-7 in conference play.
“I think having DJ come back from an involuntarily redshirt last season and having her energy and her spirit in the locker room is something we’ve been missing,” Jaida Williams said. “It’s a large reason why we’ve had success so far.”
With things starting to fall in place for both DJ Williams and the Chants, putting things in perspective is easy.
“It’s been amazing. Going from being sick and watching and still caring and not giving up on basketball – I never gave up on anything. And to be back here now is truly a dream come true,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here without the coaches, the team and the support and love they gave me when I was going through chemo. Just playing sometimes it can be surreal because I really didn’t know for a fact if I would even come back – if I would survive. So coming back means everything, it’s the world to me.”
Now that she’s back to a “normal” life, Williams can truly cherish the most important things in life.
“Just laughing with my friends and having those moments are important, and just getting out – whether it’s going to the beach or to the movies or just anything, just smiling and enjoying life and not sulking in the negative living in fear. Really, I just love to love and try to give that love to everybody and make people smile,” she said. “That’s one of the things I love the most is just making other people feel great because you never know what people are going through. So I would say laughing with my friends and contributing to the world and making it a better place are the most important things to me. There’s a lot of hate, so I try to give a lot of love.”
And Williams displays that affection both on and off the court, according to her teammates.
“She’s one of the most caring people you will ever meet,” Alexis Robinson said. “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to find another DJ Williams and I and the rest of the team are truly thankful to have her in our lives.”
Meanwhile, Williams plans to have basketball in her life for a long, long time.
“Basketball is something I want to do forever. When it’s my time to go and if it’s on the court I know I would be happy,” she said. “I definitely see myself going beyond the collegiate level, and life after basketball I wouldn’t mind coaching or doing something else around the game because I love it oh so much.”
Now with a stronger outlook on life and having gone through one of the toughest things she could have endured, Williams plans to spread her message to those who may need to hear it.
“I can’t be annoyed and I can’t be upset. I just hope someone hears me and can feel better with what they’re going through, whether it be cancer or anything else; Just connect and know there is life after what feels like death. The word cancer sounds like a death sentence and it’s not – you just have to fight,” Williams said. “After fighting and being here, I just want to tell people that anything is possible and don’t give up on your dreams. I could have gave up and I wouldn’t be here but I am. So, just survive. Whatever you’re going through, just survive. That should be your only thought – survive.”