A Survivor's Tale

The Heart of a Champion

From communism to coming out to fighting breast cancer, Martina Navratilova is the ultimate survivor

My life has been a long journey, from surviving communism to surviving breast cancer. Being tough and resilient has been one of the things that got me to where I am, though it wasn’t actually my goal. It is just what happened to me in this challenging experience of being human.

I grew up under communism in the Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was a very oppressive regime. You aren’t your own person. You can’t speak your mind or share your feelings, or else there would be retribution. My father left the party in 1948, for example, and was thrown out of school as a result. As a student, my mom disagreed with a political science teacher and was expelled. The people in power back then wanted me to join the Communist Youth Party and go to all these meetings. I went for half a day. I only did the absolute minimum required. I did what I had to do in order to survive.

But I could not deal with being told what I should or should do, say or feel. That was hard for me, since I tend to blurt out whatever comes to my head! In 1975, I had to make the most difficult decision of my life — to leave the Republic of Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know if I’d ever see my family again. It was terribly lonely and isolating. I would not see my mother for four years, nor my dad for five years.

It was hard on my game, too. In 1976, I lost the U.S. Open, and I consider it the worst loss of my career — at least in the way I responded to it on and off the court. My game was horrible; my behavior, worse. I huffed off the court in tears and ducked the press afterwards. I hadn’t yet learned how to deal with the hard parts of being a professional athlete.

Still, I had a vision for my life that if I left the repression of my homeland, I could really become the champion I knew I could be. Eventually, I did.

Life began to turn more positive. After six years of living without a country, I had found a home in the United States and was granted citizenship in 1981.

That same year, I came out. Doing so was actually easier than leaving a communist country, because I never had any issues with being gay. Coming out was another form of freedom, and that is an amazing feeling — something that should not be taken away from anyone. I came out because I knew that I could not be on top of my game if I was inauthentic or behaving in ways that just did not come naturally to me.

I had to survive intense criticism, however. I am told I lost millions of dollars in endorsements and sponsorships, but in my heart I know I have gained things of much greater value, particularly the opportunity to live my life with integrity and the knowledge that others might have come out because of my example.

My greatest foe, however, was breast cancer. In January 2010, when I finally had a mammogram after 4 years, the doctors told me to come back for a closer look. They did a biopsy. The next day, my doctor, who is a close friend, called me and said, “Are you sitting down?”

My heart jumped into my throat. She said, “Well, it came back positive.”

Great! But, wait. That’s not good. Normally, positive is a good thing, but not in my case.

I felt sorry for myself for about a minute; then I got into the solving the problem. What do I have to do to get out of this? I thought: Will I need to get implants? Will I have to have cosmetic surgery? I didn’t want to lose my boobs and I didn’t want to lose my hair because I don’t have much of either. Ultimately, my self-determination to get well kicked in.

Mine was ductal carcinoma in situ — a highly treatable and curable form of breast cancer. It had not yet spread beyond the breast, although it was a Grade 3 — a more aggressive type. So my doctors decided the best treatment was to have a lumpectomy, followed by radiation. I had the lumpectomy in March 2010, and I started radiation in May, during the French Open in Paris, where I was living with my girlfriend. I had 30 days of radiation, Monday through Friday, in the mornings. I signed into the clinic so many times that I thought I was buying the place. In the afternoons, I competed in the French Open.

Fortunately, I did not suffer huge effects of the treatment, mainly because I was in really good shape to begin with, and I had a positive attitude. It did, however, take me about two years to get back to 100 percent.

How did I survive all this? I regained my focus as best I could. I focused on my treatment. I focused on pulling together a supportive group of people to help me. I focused on the present moment and what I had to do to get well. It was a hard, challenging journey, but I was determined to make it. When people ask me today how I’m doing, I say: “I have 10 toes, 10 fingers and 2 boobs!” It was rough, but now I’m happy to say I’m cancer-free.

As for the future, I know there will be good times and bad times, times of victory and times of survival. But I will continue to do the things I’ve always done to make this world a better place. Although I have retired from being a tennis pro, I did not — and I will never — retire from being a champion of gay rights, women’s rights, human rights, animal rights … all rights!

I look forward most to continuing my treasured work as AARP’s Fitness Ambassadorship. This has given me an amazing opportunity to spread the word on health and fitness to millions of people. My work with AARP has been supremely important and fulfilling to me, as well as enjoyable.

I do not foresee myself not working. Work is, or ought to be, a superior form of — not only useful, but altogether stimulating and fun. I applaud the attitude of Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer, who had more than 500 books to his credit. He said, “If the doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood — I’d type a little faster.”

As for me and my future, I will work, play and give back — all a little faster.

Martina Navratilova, AARP's Fitness Ambassador, has won 59 grand slam tennis titles (the last one six weeks shy of her 50th birthday). She has been named "Tour Player of the Year" by the Women's Tennis Association, "Female Athlete of the Year" by the Associated Press, and is one of the "Top 40 Athletes of All Time" by Sports Illustrated.

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