October may be breast cancer awareness month, but tending to your health isn’t a once-a-year affair. Tennis legend and breast cancer survivor Martina Navratilova, 65, knows this all too well. In 2010, after skipping routine mammograms for years, she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). She’s since made it her mission to encourage women to prioritize their health. “It’s not selfish,” she says. “It’s self-care.”
I spoke with Navratilova about her mental and physical fight against cancer, and what it really means to champion your own health.
I know a lot of women can relate to the fact that you missed a few routine mammograms before receiving your diagnosis. What made you decide to finally get one?
MN: Well, I knew it was time; I just didn’t realize it had been four years in between. I thought it was two years, maximum… and I think I had it on my agenda, like ‘okay, it’s been years, it’s time to go.’
I got it done, finally, and it was only at that point that I found out it had been over four years since my last [mammogram]. I was just putting it off. I had changed doctors and hadn’t paid enough attention. When I was diagnosed, I really thought, ‘I need to let it be known that it’d been four years for me, and for women to pay more attention when they get that notice from the doctor that it’s time for their yearly exam.’ I think we should make [our yearly mammogram appointment] an anniversary or some special day for us so we always remember and just get it done that week and don’t put it off. I put it off and it almost cost me dearly.
In 2010, you said on Good Morning America that receiving your diagnosis was your “personal 9/11.” Tell me more about that.
When 9/11 happened … everything came to a standstill, and you remember that moment. It was February 24, 2010, when I got the call from my doctor that my lumpectomy turned out to be positive. Everything came to a standstill for me as well. You know, I had plans, and plans just didn’t mean anything at all. The only plan was the plan of attack to get well… the moment [something like] that happens, nothing else matters… I was really tired for several weeks after that, and I realized it was just from the stress of finding out I had cancer.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you started treatment?
That’s a good question… I would probably do a little more research on how much [radiation] helps. I knew it helps some, but I didn’t know the numbers — like [the chances of the cancer returning] went from 6 percent to 3 percent, something like that, so you try to listen to the odds. But [since radiation], the tissue on my left pectoral muscle is different. My pecs get tight as a tennis player, and [I got radiation on] my playing arm. The tissue’s different, and it didn’t really bother me, but if I was still playing a lot, it would have been a problem. If I was still actively playing, I probably would’ve opted not to get that radiation.
I had a very good friend, also a tennis player, who [was also diagnosed with DCIS]. She ended up having a mastectomy about 10 years into treatment because [the cancer] kept coming back. But she’s okay — she’s still alive, and that was 20 years ago. I just wanted to lessen the percentages. And so, maybe, looking back, I would probably do the same thing, but I would think about it a little bit longer.
You didn’t slow down during treatment. I read that while you were undergoing radiation, you still played tennis and even worked as a commentator at the 2010 French Open. What inspired you to keep going despite the physical and mental hardships of treatment?
The mental hardship, the emotional stuff, was perhaps more difficult than the physical. As an athlete, you’re very aware of your body. I was just going to listen to my body, and my body said ‘it’s okay.’ There was literally only one time where I was [practicing] and I stopped after 10 minutes because I was too tired. That was the only thing that I changed. But it was just totally listening to my body. You know, I took extra naps maybe, when I was toward the last two or three weeks of radiation and I was gradually getting worse, but I was able to handle it. My body handled it really well, so I was lucky… nothing to do with me.
You have a long history of being a champion on the tennis court — you were even named one of the Top 40 Athletes of All Time by Sports Illustrated. You’ve achieved a lot of victories, but how has winning against cancer, specifically, changed you?
Well, that was rough. You know, as an athlete, if you do surgery, have a good surgeon, and do the rehab, you have a time table [for recovery]. You may be delayed by a week, but you’re gonna be okay. You can’t rehab breast cancer. That was kind of a shock, because I was completely out of control. I’m not a control freak, but I like to be in control. I like to be the driver rather than the passenger, and in this, I was the passenger. I had to depend on the doctors to do their jobs, and the radiation to do its job, and keep my fingers crossed because it’s still Russian roulette. A couple of those cancer cells could have escaped, and you know, two years later — BAM! — it’s somewhere else in your body. It was frustrating that I had to put faith in the doctors and just keep my fingers crossed. So that was a shock for an athlete — when you can’t do anything about it, you just hope for the best.
What advice do you have for our readers who may be in at-risk age groups for cancer?
Keep track of it! Go to the doctor; go get your mammograms; go get your cervical exams; and if you have any question about genetic components, take care of that, because you can prevent things from going wrong, especially in the cervical area. Don’t miss mammograms, the most important. The sooner the better. Again, find an important day in your calendar and don’t delay it. I delayed it for years and I think a lot of women do that. We take care of our pets: When the vet sends me the notice for the rabies vaccination, I take my pet the next day. But when it comes to mammograms, [you think], ‘Oh, well, I’m really busy this week, and then I’m going on vacation. I’ll do it next month.’ And then you forget about it. We forget about our own health, but we take care of everybody else. So put yourself first for a change. It’s not selfish – it’s self-care.
I read that you retired from your professional tennis career when you were 49, almost 50. Is that correct?
Hmm, yeah, US Open, mixed doubles with Bob Bryan, one month short of my 50th birthday — 2006. I got my AARP card the next month!
What advice can you give to women to inspire them to stay active at all ages?
It’s much better to do 10 minutes, 30 minutes most days — do take some days off, by the way. At least one full day off. The body needs to rest and recharge its battery. It’s better to do less more often, especially once you get older. And again, don’t put it off. Do it in the morning so it makes you feel better for the rest of the day and then you don’t have to worry about doing it later. Because once again, when it comes to self-care, [women think], ‘Oh I have to take the kids to school. I have to start cooking dinner. I have to go grocery shopping. I’ll do the workout before I start cooking dinner. Oh, I ran out of time.’ And then the day goes by and you didn’t do anything, so do it in the morning.
That’s fantastic advice. Is there anything else you’d like to share? What are you up to? What would you like our readers to know?
I’m really excited about this partnership with Hologic and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). I think it’s a great, great partnership that makes so much sense because it’s about women, for women. And as women athletes, I think we have a great platform to speak to our fans and to make them aware of their bodies. Because we have to take care of our muscles, our joints, and Hologic takes care of our internal body, so it’s a great partnership and I’m really happy to be a part of it.
The WTA and Martina Navratilova’s partnership with Hologic, a medical technology company focused on women’s health, helps raise global awareness about the importance of regular cancer screenings for women. “Throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the two organizations will continue to bring much-needed attention to the critical issue of women’s health during tournaments, at special events, and through public campaigns,” says a press release from Hologic. Read more about this partnership and how you can support it.
Martina Navratilova’s testimony is a humbling reminder that even being a superstar athlete doesn’t give you immunity against cancer. While healthy routines and an active lifestyle can aid in prevention, you’re still human, and life is unpredictable. You are your own greatest advocate when it comes to your health, so take care of yourself like you take care of others.
Early detection is key when it comes to fighting breast cancer, with survival rates as high as 99 percent when the cancer is diagnosed early. In between routine mammograms, make sure you perform regular self-exams as well: In doing this, you’ll become more familiar with your body, and know when to seek medical attention. Ask your doctor or seek free online resources for step-by-step guides on how to do a self-exam.