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Tennis legend Martina Navratilova on her breast cancer diagnosis: ‘I was so shocked’

The famous athlete urges women to get regular screening, shares lessons learned from her health scare and reveals how she stayed positive during treatment.
Martina Navratilova before presenting the winner's trophy to Iga Swiatek of Poland
Martina Navratilova gets ready to present the winner's trophy at the US Open Tennis Championship in New York City on Sept. 10, 2022.Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Tennis great Martina Navratilova still remembers the moment when, at age 53, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The athlete had always been fit, eaten a nutritious diet and led a healthy lifestyle, but it had been four years since her last mammogram.

“I was so shocked that there was anything going on with my body,” Navratilova, now 65, told TODAY.

“But you can be the healthiest person on the planet and still get cancer. You are definitely improving the odds by being healthy, but you’re not totally eliminating the possibility.”

Navratilova was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, which has been called “the earliest form of breast cancer” or “stage 0 breast cancer.” DCIS is marked by abnormal cells in the lining of a breast duct that have not spread to other tissues, but have the potential to become invasive in some cases, the National Cancer Institute noted.

It accounts for 1 in 5 new breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. Most patients have no symptoms.

Besides talking about her own experience, Navratilova has been processing the ovarian cancer diagnosis of her friend and great tennis rival, Chris Evert.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova laugh as they pose for a photo
Chris Evert and Navratilova share a happy moment at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore on October 24, 2018 in Singapore.Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

"Chris was such a brave warrior through it all and she went public as well for the same reason — she wanted to make sure that women were aware of what they can do to prevent this from happening," Navratilova said.

The tennis legend, who lives in Miami, recently shared her story with TODAY. The interview was arranged by Hologic, a medical technology company that sells breast imaging devices and sponsors the Women’s Tennis Association Tour.

How were you diagnosed with breast cancer?

In January in 2010, I had a mammogram. I thought it had been two years between my mammograms, but it has been four years. I had changed doctors and I hadn’t made an appointment to do the yearly exam. I just put it off. I was on the road all the time, so it’s hard to keep track.

When I finally went, they called me back the next week and said, “We need to take a closer look because something may be off.” I went in for the better mammogram and then they called again and said, “We still don’t like it. You need to go get a biopsy.”

So I went to do that. I remember lying upside down on a freezing cold table. The next day, my doctor called me and said it’s positive.

I cried for about 15 seconds and then I said, OK, what do we do? What’s the next step?

What do you remember about being diagnosed?

The stress of being diagnosed with cancer. I had hockey practice in Aspen, Colorado, that night and I wanted to play — I love hockey — but I was so tired. I’m like, what is wrong with me? I ended up stopping the practice because I was afraid either I would hurt myself or hurt somebody else.

The next day I was playing tennis and I had to rest every five minutes.

There was nothing wrong with my body at the time — it was all emotional trauma that caused me to be so tired. It was literally a shock to my system. It took about two weeks before I was back to normal physically.

That’s when I realized how much stress really impacts our bodies without us knowing about it. I was always pretty good about not worrying about things, but I really don’t worry about things now, because it’s just not worth it — it just beats you up.

Iga Swiatek of Poland is presented with the winner's trophy by Martina Navratilova
Iga Świątek of Poland is presented with the winner's trophy by Navratilova after winning the US Open Tennis Championship on Sept. 10, 2022 in New York City.Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

What was your treatment?

I had a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation.

As a tennis player, you’re always into solutions. Things happen pretty quickly on the court in a match. So I got into the solution right away and had a great team of friends who supported me.

What was the toughest part of your treatment?

Physically, the lumpectomy was OK, but they also took lymph nodes from under my arm pit so I couldn’t lift my arm for a couple of weeks. I did not suffer too much skin-wise from the radiation, but I did feel tired.

The hard part was more emotional stress rather than physical stress. You think you’re OK, but you have to keep going daily for the radiation where there’s this poison kind of burning the bad tissue, but also the good tissue. You feel like a strawberry getting irradiated on a daily basis. I was happy when that was over.

How are you doing today?

I’m cancer-free and I have not missed a yearly exam. There’s less stress now when I go in for a mammogram. But the first four or five years after the initial diagnosis, it was really hard to go and wait for the results. But then it was like this massive relief. I was flying high after they said everything was fine.

Celebrities Attend The 2022 US Open Tennis Championships
Navratilova received lots of attention at this year's US Open after watching a match sitting next to former boxer Mike Tyson with her dog in her lap. "They seated Mike Tyson next to me. I’ve known him for years, so we go way back," she said. "Lulu kept licking his arm."Jean Catuffe / GC Images

What do you want women to know about regular screening?

There are way too many women who die from breast cancer and many of them would still be alive if doctors had found it sooner. Don’t put it off because a lot can happen within a year.

Women are not afraid of knowing, we just don’t take care of ourselves because we take care of everybody else. You need to put yourself first for change when it comes to that, for sure.

Pick a date on the calendar that will remind you, like your birthday, wedding anniversary, April 15 — I don’t care. Just make a date on the calendar and don’t miss it, don’t put it off. 

Have you made any lifestyle changes since your diagnosis?

No, because I was already pretty healthy. I did not change my diet, although I did juice more afterwards.

It’s more about not worrying about stuff that just doesn’t matter. My father used to say if it doesn’t involve your health, it’s not worth poop. It’s so true, because when I was diagnosed, the whole world stopped for me. Everything else became irrelevant.

When the s--t really hits the fan, we start paying attention. So I’m just begging women to pay attention before the s--t hits the fan.

How did you stay positive and get through this?

It’s really essential to surround yourself with people who give you good energy rather than bad energy and we know who they are. 

In tennis, we have to stay positive because if you stay negative, you’re never going to win a match. We train for that and that training comes in very handy.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.