Martina fighting her 9/11

Martina fighting her 9/11

Martina fighting her 9/11

won’t retreat: Martina Navratilova, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, says she made her condition public to remind other women about the importance of routine screening. AFP

On the tennis court, Martina Navratilova fought many a stirring battle around the world. She is fighting a different battle now. The retired tennis champion, who remains a remarkably active 53-year-old, had been diagnosed with noninvasive breast cancer in February and had undergone a lumpectomy, with radiation treatment to come in May.

The early form of cancer for which Navratilova is being treated is known as DCIS or ductal carcinoma in situ. It is not a tumor and is not classified as cancer by some organisations. It is a collection of cancer cells in the milk ducts of the breast that has yet to spread to other tissues.

DCIS is less dangerous than invasive breast cancer, and some DCIS lesions remain harmless throughout a woman's life. But there is still risk, and the diagnosis, which came after a biopsy in February, was a frightening moment for Navratilova, a winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

"I call this my personal 9/11 because I realised my life would never be the same," she said in a telephone interview.

Navratilova said the early uncertainty was particularly difficult. According to cancer specialists, chemotherapy is not a usual course of action with DCIS, but some patients do choose to have mastectomies.

Although Navratilova had Grade 3 DCIS, the highest level of the condition, she and her physicians chose to do a lumpectomy and radiation treatment.

”I was relieved," Navratilova said. "The bad news was you have cancer. The good news is it's the good kind of cancer. But it was still a shock because I was so sure that I had nothing going on in my body. I felt perfectly fine."

Navratilova was one of the first top female players to place great emphasis on off-court fitness and nutrition, and she had remarkable staying power. She last played singles at Wimbledon in 2004 when she was 47, and at 49 she won the US Open mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan before retiring from tour-level tennis in September 2006.

"Our bodies are our temples, and I take good care of mine, and this still happened to me," Navratilova said, adding that she made her condition public to remind other women of the importance of routine screening. She said that after having a mammogram in 2005, she waited four years before her next one, which revealed microcalcifications in her breasts and led to her biopsy.

Dr Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California at San Francisco, said there were limitations to screening. "Where it is very clear that the benefits outweigh the risks is for women ages 50 to 75," Esserman said, noting that the recommended interval varies between one and two years.

Navratilova had a lumpectomy in March when the precancerous cells and some surrounding breast tissue were removed.

"I'm cancer free right now, and with the radiation they are lowering the chance of it coming back to like 10 percent or so," she said. "Without the mammogram I would have been up a creek."

According to Dr Leslie Ford of the National Cancer institute, "DCIS is not really a cancer diagnosis per se." But Ford said that about 25 percent of DCIS, left untreated, becomes invasive cancer.

Navratilova said: "At first I preferred not to talk about this publicly because I don't want people feeling sorry for me or to know really everything that's going on in my life. But I thought this was a great opportunity to encourage women to have that yearly checkup and get that mammogram. Don't put it off. I put mine off it turns out four years."

 Navratilova said she would undergo her six-week course of radiation treatment in Paris beginning in early May. She said she planned to do commentary on the French Open for the Tennis Channel during that period.

"Hopefully it won't knock me down too far physically, so I can still sit there and talk and hopefully do a good job," she said.