Martina Navratilova

When Martina was diagnosed with breast cancer it was a complete shock. But just like all the other opponents she'd faced, this was a fight she had no intention of losing...
Martina Navratilova kept asking herself why on earth she, of all people, should have been diagnosed with breast cancer. At 54, the nine-times Singles Wimbledon Champion eats healthily and has an exercise regime that would put most women half her age to shame. She's never smoked and rarely drinks. Yet at the beginning of last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  'I suppose you're never ready to be told something like that,' says Martina today. 'I was in complete shock. I thought: "I'm not ready for this. Not now." 'I felt it was too early. I didn't feel 53; I didn't act it. I still don't – I act as if I'm in my 30s, and mentally my friends might say I'm in my teens. (Just kidding.) It was so unexpected. It knocked me on my backside.

'I feel so in control of my life and my body, and then this comes and it's completely out of my hands. I'm a lifelong athlete, strong, healthy and I have eaten nutritiously my entire life. I don't know . . .' She pauses. 'I wonder sometimes,' she continues. 'My mum passed away over two years ago from emphysema, at the age of 75. It was extremely difficult, and still is. I still cry for her and miss her dearly. I still want to call her every day. 'She was so healthy in every other way, so bright. She wasn't ready to go. I was there with her the week before she got suddenly worse, and I was going to see her a week later.' Martina adored her mother and remains deeply upset by her death, which she says is 'too personal, too difficult' to dwell upon.

Martina was alone in her mountain home in Colorado in February last year when she received the terrible news from her gynaecologist and close friend Mindy. When she put the phone down, she collapsed in a chair and cried.  'My mind was reeling. I didn't know whether it was life-threatening,' she says. 'I didn't know whether I'd have to have a mastectomy or chemotherapy, and I didn't want to lose my breast or my hair. 'I sat down and cried because it was such a shock. I was scared I was going to be disfigured. 'For an athlete whose body is in mint condition, that was so hard. I thought: "Oh my God, will I need to get implants? Will I have to have cosmetic surgery? Will there be a gaping hole in my breast?" 'There is the "Why me?" too, but more than that, "Why now?" I wasn't ready for it. It just goes to show that cancer can affect anybody, at any time.'  

Martina is an intriguing mix of gritty determination and warmth – a warmth that became apparent when she appeared on ITV's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2008 and came runner-up to EastEnders actor Joe Swash. Indeed, since retiring from professional tennis, she says she's spent much of her time focusing on 'personal growth'. 'Tennis stuff stunts you in that way,' she says. 'We're very grown-up on some levels, but on others we haven't had the life experiences that normal people do. Growing as a human being, that's the challenge. To become the person that your mum would be proud of.' Martina's cancer – ductal carcinoma in situ, better known as DCIS – was discovered during a routine mammogram before it had spread from the milk ducts to the breast tissue. It was the first mammogram she'd had in four years. If she'd waited another year, she could, as she says, 'have been in big trouble'.  'I was moving about. I'd changed doctors and had knee surgery in 2006, and I forgot about the mammogram bit,' she says. 'I was just procrastinating. It wasn't that I didn't want to know. I just thought: "I'll do it next time I'm in town." I kept letting it slide.
'I finally got round to it in January last year, just before I left for Australia to do some tennis commentary work. When the doctor told me they needed to take a second look, I wasn't alarmed. It seems athletes' breasts are dense, due to our being so muscular, so sometimes it's hard to get a good look. 'The same thing had happened to me after a mammogram a number of years ago, and I'd been asked to come back for another test because the first one was inconclusive. 'Martina had a second mammogram upon her return from Australia. This time the calcifications were quite obvious. Again, she says, she wasn't really alarmed. 'My sister had had a calcification in her breast 10 or 15 years ago, and my mother had one too,' she recalls. 'My sister had a biopsy that was negative and  nothing happened with my mum at all. I guess I got the short straw in my family. 'I was told that 90 or so per cent of calcifications are benign, and I thought: "Those odds sound pretty good." I honestly thought it was nothing. I didn't expect cancer to happen this early in my life. I was so healthy. ' Having the biopsy was, she says 'no worse than a mammogram'. 'You lay on an uncomfortable table and they numb the area and go in with a metal straw, where they take out some of the calcifications for pathology. It was just the fear of the unknown. I was saying to myself: "Okay, I'm getting some tissue taken out. It's nothing to worry about."'

Martina, one of the world's greatest tennis players, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 31 women's doubles titles, knows more than most about the importance of focus and positive thinking. Born in the communist Czech Republic and coached by her father Miroslav, she defected to the United States in 1975, when she was just 18, and won her first Wimbledon title just three years later. Shortly after being granted American citizenship in 1981, she came out publicly about her sexuality. Despite knowing that it could affect her chance of sponsorship deals, she was determined to be herself. 'When Mindy called me that afternoon, it took me a while to realise it was a bad thing. The word "Positive" is normally a good thing in my world.  'When she called she said: "Are you sitting down? The biopsy is positive." 'I said: "Positive in what way?"  'She said I'd need either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy depending on the size and the spread. That's when I started reeling. She told me it was a good kind of cancer – but I didn't know there was a good kind. She said she'd take me to the doctors the next day. I said I could take myself. But she said: "No. I'll pick you up at 5am. I'm going to be there with you." 'I said: "Okay, thank you." I felt very lucky to be able to hand over to someone else. 'I couldn't think clearly. That evening I was trying to make a salad and was just walking around the kitchen. I couldn't do it. I couldn't complete a simple task with all the possibilities and the unknowns.' 

Martina saw the doctor the following day and learnt, to her relief that the cancer hadn't spread beyond the milk ducts. She advised a lumpectomy, to be followed a month later with radiation treatment. 'I felt so much better after that,' she says. 'I knew what I was battling. I'm not a control freak but I like to know what's going on. 'Once I knew what the plan was, I felt less lost. I don't know though, how I'd have felt if I'd had to lose my breast, or have chemotherapy. I just felt very lucky. 'I suppose the hardest part about cancer is not being in control. When things had gone wrong before, like my knee injury, I had control even though I needed doctors. I knew that once I'd had the surgery, I'd do this or that physiotherapy and I'd be 100 per cent fit. 'However, with cancer, all you can do is improve the odds of fighting it by leading a healthy lifestyle.' 
Martina, who is a proudly self-sufficient woman, also had to learn to accept help from her friends. Seven of her closest friends went with her to the Denver Breast Cancer Clinic  on March 15 to give her their support during her lumpectomy. 'My friends said: "If you're offered help take it." The odds for recovery in cancer patients go up when you have emotional support. People who are alone in the world don't fight as hard. 'One of the first people I called was a pretty special woman who had the same kind of cancer 10 years ago. Back then I went to hospital to visit her. Fast-forward 10 years and she was visiting me. I understand now that it's nice to give, but it's nice to receive, too. 'Accepting help makes you more vulnerable, but it brings you closer too. Deep down, I wanted to have people there. I was very touched that all the people closest to me offered to come. 'There were seven women in that waiting room and they talked about all kinds of things. It was a very bonding experience for all of us.'

Thankfully, the lumpectomy was a success. Within two weeks, Martina was competing in a triathlon. In April she began her six-week radiation treatment in Paris, allowing her to work as a commentator on the French Open. There is, understandably, a huge relief. But, as she says, the breast cancer has been 'life-changing, my personal 9/11. 'Throughout my decades-long tennis career, I have faced some really tough opponents across the net: Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and even the Williams sisters in doubles. 'What I never anticipated was that my toughest opponent would be off the court – cancer. 'It has changed the way I look at my life. I just want to make sure now that I'm doing everything I want to be doing – and I am. I'm happy with my personal life and happy with work.'

Since her beloved mother's, Jana's, death, Martina has assumed the role of matriarch of the family – a responsibility, she says, that she takes 'seriously'. Indeed, when she learnt she had breast cancer, an overwhelming concern was 'worrying' her sister. 'She has two children and lots on her plate,' she says. 'I waited until I was able to see her face to face to tell her. I didn't want her to worry on her own.' Martina is trying to draw as many positives as she possibly can from her cancer. It's the way her mind works; the way she is. Speaking so personally is not easy for her, but she is, in truth, so grateful that her cancer was diagnosed when it was, that she feels it's her duty to do so. 'I just want to save lives,' she says. 'There was I, AARP's (an American organisation for the over-50s) health and fitness ambassador, talking to millions of people about the importance of staying fit and eating right. I thought there was no way cancer was going to find me.

'I hope to reach women with my story and inspire them to go get their check-ups. We all have to take personal responsibility for our health – and that includes keeping up preventative screenings. Getting my mammogram literally saved my life. 'In the past couple of months, I've gravitated towards yoga. My body is saying that this is what it needs: to meditate, take long, deep breaths and relax. 'But I don't want to slow down. I travel all the time and that's how I like it. It's my life. When I'm not travelling and seeing new places, I go stir crazy. 'I'm happy to say that the cancer has been removed from my breast, but there's always a chance it will come back. Dealing with that mentally is going to be the tricky bit. 'You don't want to dwell on it, but you don't want to ignore it either. I know there's a greater chance of it happening again, but the odds are very good. 'If it comes back, I'll deal with it at that point. And kick its ass again.'