Of all the things Devon Still talks to his 12-year-old daughter Leah about, the one thing he’s still trying to get comfortable with is boys.
“It breaks my heart,” he jokes to ESSENCE. “She’s having all these crushes. But the fact that I’m able to share all these moments is so important to me.” Eight years ago, the ability to bask in such awkward conversations came into question for Devon when Leah was diagnosed with cancer.
The former NFL player first had concerns that something was wrong when he took Leah to Disney World for the first time a year prior to her diagnosis. “You would think this would be a really exciting time for a 3-year-old,” he recalls. But while walking through parks, she sat down on the ground and wouldn’t get back up to walk. “Kids throw tantrums so we didn’t really think anything of it,” he says.
But following that trip, as time went on, she was becoming lethargic. While preparing for a dance recital, the then 4-year-old wasn’t eating and running a fever, which pushed Devon to take her to the hospital. He happened to mention to the doctor what transpired at Disney World and how she started to complain of hip pain.
“They went to touch her hip and she jumped from the doctors,” he says. They were sent to another hospital, with doctors believing perhaps she had an infection from her joints growing too fast. That wasn’t the case. In 2014, blood work and scans found that she had stage 4 neuroblastoma.
“I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself to hear those words,” he says in retrospect. “I feel like I got hit with a train but went numb at the same time.” He went to tell family members waiting for word, including Leah’s grandparents, and couldn’t contain his emotions.
“It was a five-minute walk to the waiting room but it felt like I was walking New York blocks,” he recalls. “When I went to open up my mouth to tell them, I just fell to the ground and started crying…I don’t remember what happened after that. It’s like everything just went blank.”
Despite the barrage of emotions that hit him at that moment, it wasn’t difficult for Still to make the choice he did to step away from being an active player for the Cincinnati Bengals to focus on his daughter’s healing and being as present as possible as a parent.
“It was actually the easiest decision I ever had to make in my life because I understood my morals and my values before I even made it to the NFL,” he says, noting that it was important for him to figure out who he was before he signed a contract. “I always told myself that God and my family would come first. And it wasn’t like I grew up loving football. Really, it was an avenue for me to make it out of the hood and take care of my family. So if my family was at risk, namely my daughter, my sole purpose for making it to the NFL to show them a different life no longer really existed. So I needed to make sure she was able to overcome her battle with cancer.”
That he did. By 2015, Leah found herself in remission with no signs of cancer. They went from having scans and tests every three months to every six and finally, once a year. It was initially “scary” for Devon and the family considering the possibility of reoccurrence. But after five years of being in remission, the neuroblastoma didn’t return, and chances of it reoccurring dropped dramatically.
These days, Leah goes back to doctors once a year as part of a survivorship program to monitor her for possible long-term developmental effects that can be brought on by radiation and chemotherapy. But regarding the cancer, they are grateful to not have to worry about it anymore. “We just enjoy life,” Devon says.
Leah is a pre-teen, a big sister to Devon and wife Asha’s daughter Ari, as well as to their baby girl due in early 2023. For her dad, watching Leah grow is “everything I dreamed of.”
“She’s going through adolescence, so she’s going through her go through right now [laughs],” he says. “To be able to experience that, although it may be chaotic for some parents, it’s amazing to me because at one point I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to.”
He continues to share updates on Leah’s health, celebrating each year that passes where she’s cancer-free. He has always hoped that by sharing her story, whether on social media or on national platforms, efforts to raise money and awareness for families praying for the same outcome for their kids would be centered. This is important on days like today, National Tackle Kids Cancer Day, and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, but every day in general.
“I announced what she was going through not for sympathy but to raise awareness for what’s really going on and what families are really going through in these hospitals,” he says. “I had to make sense of what Leah was going through. There had to be purpose in her pain.”
“One of the things that has one of the greatest impacts on our mental health and wellbeing is finding meaning. Finding something that really transcends the self and impacts other people. So I made it not just about Leah’s fight but, we’re going to raise awareness for all the kids battling cancer and cancer research, and it helped,” he adds. “There were times when things got really dark. It was like, Can I really do this? But when you realize there are other parents and kids fighting cancer that are looking to you for hope, for how to endure, I never wanted to send a message to them that it was ok to give up.”
But in the end, when people laud Devon and his strength, his sacrifices during that harrowing time, he makes sure they know that no one was or has been stronger than Leah.
“People talk to me about the things I did during that time but it was really her. She was our source of strength for a lot of it,” he says. “She was the one who had to endure 40 rounds of chemo and 45 days of radiation. She had to go through that. And if she wasn’t able to make it through that with a smile on her face, being optimistic, I don’t know how we would have been able to get through it.”
Devon and Leah are launching mental health resources for families on their cancer journey. The Mental Health and Childhood Cancer Journey panel discussion will launch on September 26th featuring patients, parents and expert clinicians, at www.copingwithchildhoodcancer.com. Father and daughter also took part in a campaign called Braving NeuroBLASToma filled with resources for families fighting neuroblastoma.