Brandon Bolden will never take a smile for granted ever again.
It was midway through the Patriots' 2018 playoff run when the running back took a hit under the chin that sent extreme pain radiating throughout his face.
He shrugged it off and continued playing through the postseason.
After a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, he went to get checked out and see what could've cause that burning pain.
He still remembers the thoughts that flew threw his head when his doctor delivered the news over the phone that they believed he had cancer.
"It was like a punch in the stomach; all the wind came out of me," he remembers now. "I didn't even know how to respond. My wife was standing right next to me, and I'm looking at her like, how do I fix my mouth to repeat what I just heard."
Bolden was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a cancer that develops in the salivary gland and can spread into bones. He underwent surgery that left him with a long scar along his jawline and a metal plate in the back of his skull where doctors removed part of the bone.
But the surgery meant he was cancer free, which he valued more than anything else.
"My kids didn't look at me any different," he said. "As soon as they said I could get out of bed, my kids were ready to play. We were playing tag in the hallways and everything else, and I'm walking around with tubes coming out of my neck. … My wife and kids were there every step of the way."
Bolden, however, was left with a quirk. While one side of his face looked happy, the other side was expressionless. He had no motor function on the right side of his face. A big Batman fan, Bolden joked that he felt like the villain Two-Face.
"You really don't value your smile until you don't have one," he said.
"I couldn't sleep right. I had to have a weight [put] in my eyelid, I still have that scar. Nothing over here worked."
A few weeks after surgery and still suffering the side effects, Bolden returned to the football field in time for OTAs, with the advice to "just be smart" and listen to his body.
Even though he knew his body was fine, part of him was still nervous as to what could happen if he took a rough hit to the head again, especially with having part of his skull removed. Would his career be over? Would he be OK? But ultimately, what helped him the most in the recovery process was being around his football community.
"Having to talk, having to communicate, having to try to be a leader for my teammates and everything else, that kind of propelled me getting back into football," he noted. "Between my family and my teammates at that time, they were the biggest springboard for me coming back into football."
Bolden, who had signed as a free agent with Miami that offseason, didn't miss a single game and chose to stay quiet on his cancer experience, with family, teammates and coaches being some of the few who knew what he had gone through.
In late 2021, Bolden was FaceTiming his son when he glanced at the small square on the screen containing his face and noticed that if he tried, he could almost see all of his teeth and a full smile.
Something about that moment gave him a desire to take his story public and after talking with his family, he revealed his status as a cancer survivor on social media.
"At first, it was something I was kind of apprehensive about, but coming out with the story and seeing how many people it touched and see how many lives have changed because of it, I don't regret the decision," he said. "I kind of wish I'd spoken about it earlier. I wasn't in the space to be able to talk about it. It was still something I was trying to work through, something I was trying to figure out how I wanted to go about it."
Bolden shared a message of importance of early detection, as he himself knows it could've changed his diagnosis.
"Going back to 2016, I noticed I had a lump on the side of my face. Instead of going to the doctor and trying to figure out what it was, being a football player, I just figured it was an injury and it would just go away," he said. "As the years went on, it never went away, so I tried my best to hide it. I grew out a beard, grew it as thick as possible so it at least looked even. That was probably the most bullheaded part on my end. I possibly could've caught it early and avoided surgery and avoided missing a piece of my skull for the rest of my life."
Research has shown that early detection provides a large difference in survival rates, as many cancers are more likely to be successfully treated when smaller and haven't spread. For multiple forms of cancer – breast, colorectal, cervical and prostate – the five-year survival rate is above 90% when detected early.
"Cancer's no longer a death sentence," he said. "I do my part whenever I can. I don't mind talking about it anymore.
"When I first found out about it, I'm not going to lie to you, I was ashamed, I was scared. I didn't know if I was going to play football again. With the love and support of my family, here I am, still going."