Tennis great Martina Navratilova has just won the greatest fight of her life.
The 66-year-old, widely recognised as one of the greatest players of all time, has revealed she is in remission after being diagnosed with both throat and breast cancer in January.
“As far as I know I’m cancer free,” the American announced on TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored this week before becoming emotional when she described the bell cancer survivors have to ring in hospital to show they are cancer-free.
“I rang it three times,” she said through tears.
“It’s very hard not to cry, sorry. I’m crying just looking at it again because you just can’t wait to ring the bell and I’m still in God’s hands whether or not you’re going to be 100 per cent or not but you hope for the best.”
Back in January when she first shared the devastating news, she vowed to “fight it with all I’ve got”, adding, “This double whammy is serious but still fixable, and I’m hoping for a favourable outcome.”
Speaking to Piers, Martina, who now works as a tennis commentator, said she first learnt she had the early stages of throat cancer in December and her doctor believed the “squamous cell carcinoma” was coming from somewhere else in her body.
“I had a sense of foreboding when I asked the doctor, ‘What do you think the chances are?’ and he said, ‘About 50-50’. I was like, ‘I don't like those odds’.”
This was the first week in December, I will see this Christmas but maybe not the next one.”
It was while she was undergoing tests on her throat that cancer in her right breast was discovered.
“That’s when I started crying on the table as she's still poking and getting samples out of my boob and I'm like, ‘Oh great, now I have two cancers at the same time that are not related. Who else has two cancers at the same time? I’m a great achiever but this is getting ridiculous.”
It’s sadly not her first brush with the disease. Back in 2010 she was diagnosed with a non-invasive form of breast cancer in her left breast and underwent a lumpectomy to remove the mass.
She had radiation therapy and says she lost seven kilograms as she struggled to eat. “I knew it was going to be hard but I didn’t realise it was going to be as hard as it really was. You know how much I love to eat and eating was the hardest part of this whole treatment.
The nine-time Wimbledon winner says she “should be good to go” after more preventive radiation on her breast over a two-week period.
Sadly the entire ordeal has meant that her adoption plans for a child with her wife, former beauty queen and reality star, Julia Lemigova (50), have been put on hold.
She admitted that adoption “was a nice thought for a while, but I think this has brought it into sharp focus. I’m not really the youngest anymore and I don't want to be the grandmother on the playground.”
Challenges are nothing new to Martina. She left her homeland to make a new life in America and she faced prejudice when she became one of the first major sports stars to come out as gay.
In 2010 she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive breast cancer confined to the milk ducts which was discovered during a routine mammogram. She had a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation and, despite describing cancer as “my personal 9/11”, said being a top-level athlete helped her fight the disease.
“You learn to be positive, so that came in very handy as a patient. Being a positive person helped a lot – and so did surrounding yourself with positive people.”
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Number one on that list of people is her wife, who’s no stranger to personal struggle.
Julia, the final Miss USSR beauty queen, acknowledged she was gay only after she fell for Martina.
“I grew up in Russia and I didn’t know it existed,” she told the Daily Mail.
Julia’s past is fraught with scandal and tragedy. After leaving Russia in her late teens and living in London for a while, she moved to Paris where she had an affair with the late Édouard Stern, who was married and a close friend of former French president Nicolas Sarközy.
They had a son, Maximilien, who became the centre of a custody battle when they split up – and then the little boy died of what Julia believes was shaken baby syndrome while in the care of his nanny. Authorities found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute but Julia still believes her five-month-old son was murdered and she has never recovered from his death.
“Part of me is dead forever,” she told Page Six in 2022. “At the time I simply didn’t want to live. I wanted to join my son.”
She went on to have two daughters, Victoria (22) and Emma (15), with unnamed men – and then Martina came along.
Their first meeting was at a gay bar in Paris in 2000 but sparks only really started to fly eight years later when they met up again at the French Open.
“We had breakfast the next day, and then the next, and then the third day,” Julia recalls. “And then she moved in.”
Martina opened her eyes to her sexuality, Julia says. “I was still struggling,” she admitted in a 2021 interview. “I couldn’t imagine holding another woman’s hand in the street.”
Her daughters, she says, helped give her courage to go public with her romance. “When I saw my two girls standing up to their friends and saying, ‘Yeah, we have two moms’, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God. My girls came out faster than me!’
“And then it was like, ‘Boom, boom’. I never ever looked back.”
The couple married in December 2014 at a ceremony attended by actress Brooke Shields and tennis great Chris Evert. They then settled in Miami, where Julia would go on to become the first gay woman to appear on The Real Housewives of Miami.
Julia says she was happy to share her life with Martina.
“I have this amazing opportunity to show that love has no gender and love is love.”
After Martina’s double-cancer diagnosis, Julia posted a recent pic of her and her wife together. “Thank you to everyone who has reached out to share words of support,” she said. “Together we will fight this.”
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Each cancer has a separate medical team, says Dr Otis Brawley, an oncology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US.
“You get your breast surgeons and your breast radiation oncologist and your breast medical oncologist, and they treat the breast cancer,” he says. “And then you get the head-neck oncologists, including the radiation oncologist and the head-neck medical oncologist, and they treat the head and neck cancer.”
Brawley says Martina’s breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean she had a recurrence of her old cancer.
“A stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis means this is a new cancer only related to her previous breast cancer in that it occurred in the same person.”
After Martina was declared cancer-free in 2010, she became an advocate for breast cancer awareness and in 2019 appeared topless on the British TV show The All New Monty: Ladies Night to encourage woman to examine their breasts and have regular checks for cervical cancer.
Removing her top on national TV took courage, she admitted. “But I realised that however vulnerable I may have felt putting myself out there, the cause was so worthwhile. It was a matter of life and death, so if I could contribute in a way to more people getting checked, then it was all good.”
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease than can cause various cancers, including cervical and throat cancer.
Stage 1 HPV cancer, which is what Martina Navratilova has, is usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. HPV-positive throat cancer usually responds better to treatment than cancer caused by smoking and/or alcohol abuse, says US oncologist Otis Brawley.
Symptoms of HPV throat cancer include a worsening sore throat, difficulty swallowing, a lump, a change in the voice, and earache.
In South Africa, two strains of HPV – HPV-16 and HPV-18 – are considered high risk and are estimated to cause 70% of cervical cancers and 20% of head and neck cancers.
A vaccine against HPV is available in SA for girls and women between the ages of nine and 26, if they aren’t sexually active.
SOURCES: NINE.COM.AU, DAILYMAIL.CO.UK, EURONEWS.COM, OLYMPICS.COM, WTATENNIS.COM, TENNIS.COM, NPR.ORG, AFRICA.ESPN.COM, WASHINGTONPOST.COM, DAILYMAIL.CO.UK, THEGUARDIAN.COM, EDITION.CNN.COM, DISCOVERY.CO.ZA, HEALTH-E.ORG.ZA, AU.SPORTS.YAHOO.COM, CANSA.ORG.ZA, USMAGAZINE.COM, CDC.GOV, SABCNEWS.COM