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Chronicle of Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova's Battle With Breast Cancer

Aired September 4, 2010 - 16:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This year more than 1.3 million women worldwide will hear the words "you have breast cancer". Four words that will change their lives forever. That single moment will become a turning point, the start of a tenacious battle against a killer. The day she heard those few words, Martina Navratilova cried. A woman who defected from Czechoslovakia at the age of 18, bravely blazed the trail for homosexual acceptance. A woman who many considered the best tennis player who ever lived, now braced for the fight of her life.

In this rare half hour, Navratilova allows you into her personal battle with cancer. You are going to walk with her through radiation, meet her doctor, and support team. Find out what Martina Navratilova believes saved her life.

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: Wimbledon is like my second home. It's going to be a sweet homecoming, in a way, I think. I'm playing with Jana Novotna. We'll see what happens. I feel pretty confident. Jana is playing great, we've been hitting a lot. We'll have been playing more tennis than anyone else out there.

GUPTA: Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna have a lot in common. They are both Czech-born tennis pros, who have a special connection with the Alt Union Club, both are Wimbledon champions. Navratilova dominated the competition in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s. She won the Wimbledon's single title a record nine times; with 59 Grand Slam tennis titles she has more titles than any other man or woman.

In 2010, Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna reunited in London to play the legends at Wimbledon. But Navratilova would be playing two days after completing an intensive course of cancer treatment.

NOVOTNA: When I finally heard that news that Martina does have a breast cancer, I was really worried and very saddened by the news. It's like disbelief almost. You're like, Martina? Sick? That cannot be.

NAVRATILOVA: Well, I had a mammogram in January and they said I need to come back for a closer look. In February, I went back and they magnified it and said, well, there is a cluster. We'll probably do a biopsy to be sure. I went to Denver to get the biopsy on a Tuesday. They said, looks pretty good, should be nothing. Wednesday, my doctor, Mindy, who is a very good friend of mine, calls me and says, "Are you sitting down?" And I'm like, "Why?" She said, "Well, it came back positive."

ALAIN FORQUET, INSTITUTE CURE: The type of cancer is very, very understated. It remains in the ducts of the breast.

GUPTA: Indeed, Navratilova was struck with the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer. Intra-ductal is also known as ductalcarcinoma in situ. Often referred to as DCIS for short. The word carcinoma means it begin in the skin or tissue, like breast tissue. This cancer starts inside the milk ducts. In Navratilova's case, the news is encouraging because the cancer is isolated and had not spread to the surrounding tissue. Like more than a million women worldwide, the diagnosis came as a shock. She didn't feel sick at all. She was the picture of health and fitness.

NAVRATILOVA: I heard on February 24th which is kind of my 9/11. You don't forget that date when your life is basically changed forever. Although I did not hear the word "cancer." I heard "your biopsy was positive." And I'm like, positive is usually good. But wait a minute, that's not good, what does that mean? The first thought is this can't be happening. But it is happening. I mean, I was in denial for about two seconds. Then I cried for, I don't know, a minute. Then I said, OK, what do we do?

GUPTA: In Navratilova's case, the relatively good news is that the cancer is isolated and has not spread to the surrounding tissue.

FORQUET This course of radiation therapy usually lasts six week and is given through everyday treatment, five days a week for the whole course of treatment.

GUPTA: Navratilova struggled with how to tell others the news. She had to come to terms with the surgery and about 25 radiation treatments that lay ahead.

NAVRATILOVA: When I was first diagnosed with DCIS, I thought for sure I would keep it private, keep it quiet. No one needs to know. It's a very personal issue, of course. I wanted to save my energy for fighting it. I talked to friends who said, oh, I need to go for my mammogram. I realized how many women put it off and I would use it as a platform to encourage women, and remind them to take care of themselves and go for the yearly check-up.

GUPTA: Word that cancer had touched the ultimate athlete, Martina Navratilova, was major news.

NAVRATILOVA: It has been amazing, particularly in England when the story broke -- when I broke it, I was on the front page of most newspapers in England. It was like, whoa. And the story got bigger and bigger.

BORIS BECKER, TENNIS CHAMPION: I was shocked, I read a newspaper. I was here in London. I was reading the morning papers and I couldn't believe it.

BILLIE JEAN KING, TENNIS CHAMPION: I have so many friend who have breast cancer. I was thinking, oh, my gosh. That just shows you. You never know.

GUPTA: Despite the diagnosis, Navratilova refused to slow down. Like so many women in that situation, she wanted to continue with at least a semblance of normal life.

NOVOTNA: I had a chance to practice with Martina two days before she left to Indian Wells to do the Hit for Haiti. We played together and I said, Martina, are you sure you want to do this? Maybe you should go home and take care of yourself, don't do anything. Knowing Martina, you have to understand that she feels the best when she is busy. She feels the best when she is on a tennis court.

GUPTA: On March 15, Navratilova, surrounded by her support team, traveled to the U.S. state of Colorado for the first stage of her treatment, a lumpectomy. A lumpectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the lump along with some of the tissue that surrounds the area. It is a breast-preserving surgery. Far less radical than a mastectomy, in which a lot of breast tissue is removed. The surgery typically takes between 15 to 40 minutes. Scarring is minimal. But the lumpectomy is only one step on the journey to become cancer-free.

NAVRATILOVA: I didn't have to have chemo. The surgery was minor. I was out of the hospital that day. So, and radiation, not chemo, so nothing to knock me on my butt and really suffer from. I was fortunate that I got the kind of cancer that you can control this way.

GUPTA: Less than two weeks after surgery, she's on a bike, competing in a triathlon relay in Hawaii.

FORQUET: We usually encourage women to keep their physical activity during their course of treatment. We also encourage them to keep their working activity if they can. I think it's an important component of the rehabilitation for treatment and be able to continue with a normal life and with a social life.

GUPTA: Navratilova was determined to challenge the disease just as aggressively as she would any opponent. As any woman who battled cancer can tell you, it is an elusive opponent.


NAVRATILOVA: I think I had a great childhood growing up in a small town. I grew up around 5,000 people. We lived just a stone's throw from the train station. So it was very accessible to go to Prague. And, of course, went to the club most days -- to the tennis club, and played tennis there. When I was seven my dad took me on the real court, when you can hit a fore hand, I'll start teaching you. That was the beginning of my tennis career.

GUPTA: Martina Navratilova would soon be on her way to becoming the most successful tennis player of all time. The one opponent standing in the way of her was the Czechoslovakian government. As her star rose Navratilova faced more pressure to play according to the government's rules, or risk never playing abroad again. NAVRATILOVA: My dad says, if you're going to leave, don't come back. No matter what we say, don't come back, and don't tell your mom.

GUPTA: A bold decision at 18 years old. Drawing upon the reserves of courage acquired through her years in competitive sports, Martina Navratilova said good-bye to her homeland and her life as she knew it. She defected to the United States.

NAVRATILOVA: Of course I'm so happy with how my life turned out. But I regret the fact that I had to leave so that I missed those years with my family. That's the one thing you can never have back.

GUPTA: Navratilova's success and her bravery abroad struck a chord with another tennis player growing up in Czechoslovakia. Jana Novotna had heard of Martina Navratilova from a very young age.

NOVOTNA: I remember actually, very clearly, sneaking into center court, just standing on the stairs, trying to take a peek when she was playing in one of her matches. I remember. It was a great experience.

GUPTA: Now, a quarter century later, Navratilova and Novotna are together on the court, older and part of the French Open Legends Tournament. Navratilova is determined to fulfill her commitment to play despite her recent diagnosis. But her tennis partner and their coach, part of Navratilova's cancer support team, are concerned about her health. Can she take the strain of the match amid the media attention?

IWONKA KUCZYNSKA, COACH: We are going to create a family for her, for this time being, for this six weeks. We are going to do everything we can to become her mom, her dad, friends, cook, drive her, whatever she needs from us, we are there. Make her laugh, have fun on the court, work out, laugh a lot. Because I know the more you laugh, you always get five more years to live. So we laughed a lot.

GUPTA: The next stage of Navratilova's treatment, radiation, will begin on May 12. Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy is a highly targeted, effective way to destroy microscopic tumors that may have escaped surgery. In Navratilova's case she will receive radiation therapy four to five times a week for six weeks.

FORQUET: This is for those diagnosed very early in the course. Thanks to mammograms.

NAVRATILOVA : It took radiation for me to stay put, but it worked out that I could get it done in Paris. That would be week three and four of radiation during the French Open. Those would be the only two weeks I would be working during the six weeks of the radiation. I will have a pretty easy go, I think.

I started the radiation. I'm on week two right now. It's a six- week process. They say you get tired maybe week four, five, six. It's very individual. I'm feeling nothing. It's weird. You lay on the table and the treatment only lasts three or four minutes. They organize you and this scarf is not just a statement. I'm marked on my breast where the radiation goes so that you're positioned just right on the table.

Once they get you organized, it's like two minutes. It's weird laying there. You're getting rays put into your body that are making sure the cancer hopefully doesn't come back, but at the same time it's killing good cells as well. It's this mixed emotion about it. Four treatments, and so far so good. The French starts in three days. I'm ready to go. So, I'm excited about that.

I think this match is the final.

GUPTA: Like hundreds of thousands of women dealing with breast cancer worldwide, there is little time for Navratilova to dwell on how she's feeling. She's got to get to work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's done it. Third break point of the match. Just long. She's not going to beat herself. You're going to have to take it to her.

GUPTA: A lifetime of tennis knowledge makes her an invaluable and insightful commentator. But before the booth each morning Martina must first get her targeted dose of radiation.

NAVRATILOVA: It just feels weird, you know, laying on that table, getting zapped with poison basically. But it's poison that will help you in the long run. The players have been very supportive, and the whole tennis community. Again, it's like a family. It's like an extended family. It's been great to get the support from them. I have given a lot to the tennis game, to the tennis community and now I'm taking it right back.

GUPTA: Navratilova's day is long from over. Now it's her turn to play. This is an important outing. Fans are going to se her play for the first time since her diagnosis.

NAVRATILOVA: You know, you just play a match and you don't know if the clapping is for my career, or feeling sorry for me, or a combination. There are a lot of well wishers there and people empathizing, wishing me well. It's nice to get that kind of energy.


NOVOTNA: She always made the effort to go out, play. That's what she loves to do. She needed the exercise to get rid of all of that -- that tiredness and just sitting in the commentary box. So it was very hard. And I think that when we played our first match it was great. The atmosphere was really, really nice. The stadium was full. She felt really good.

GUPTA: Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna overpowered their opponents. But Martina's toughest day is yet to come.


NAVRATILOVA: It's getting a little sore and I'm getting a little rundown. I go upstairs, I take the steps up two stories, and I'm getting more tired when I get to the top these days. Overall, just a little sore. Sort of like a pressure, you know, on the breast. Like somebody just puts it in a grip and doesn't let go. It's not horrible yet. We'll see.

Hallelujah. I can sit down.

GUPTA: One side effect of radiation therapy is exhaustion, caused as the body works to repair damage to healthy cells. Typically fatigue occurs in the later weeks of treatment.

NAVRATILOVA: My worst day by far, of the six weeks, was Friday of the day of the fourth week, which was the day off. I think we played Thursday and then we played Saturday. Friday, I went to hit and I was so tired I lasted about 15 minutes. I had to stop. I had no energy. It gets worse usually. So Saturday was not as bad a day. But, yeah, that was my second worst day.

GUPTA: Often, women try to take it easy near the end of radiation therapy, but that really wasn't an option more Martina Navratilova. As she fought through the exhaustion, her support team looked on in concern.

KUCZYNSKA: She was in pain. She was very tired. I felt like she would maybe pass out or something like this. I was very scared for her. But that day in the final -- the willpower of not even saying -- she didn't say she doesn't feel good. You just knew it. I was scared for her. You know, maybe you're pushing a little bit too much right now.

NOTOVNA: When you are playing with Martina is one thing. When you're playing with Martina and you know everything she's going through, it's very emotional. I remember I really wanted to win this match. Not just to win because we like to win, but just to do it for her.


GUPTA: The air won the French Open Legends Tournament convincingly.

NAVRATILOVA: Yes it was nice to win. I played better in the second set. I was really tired in the first set, wasn't seeing the ball. Then I warmed up, so to speak, and played better. Jana played well.

GUPTA: Navratilova was ready for a break after the French Open. She wanted time to herself out of the limelight to complete her remaining two weeks of radiation.

NAVRATILOVA: I'm looking to the finish line. I'm looking forward to that.

NOVOTNA: In the beginning, it's a long way ahead. It's better not to really think about it. NAVRATILOVA: So I had a slight case of depression last week. This week I have been better. A little jumpy. A little on the soft side, easier to cry. I cry pretty easily anyway. It's hard to measure. But, you know, a little more grumpy, but controllable for the most part.

GUPTA: June 16th, the day Martina Navratilova had looked forward to for a while -- the day of her last radiation treatment.

NAVRATILOVA: Today, when I took a shower my breast was really sore for the first time. I know some of the side effects are you don't want anything to touch your skin because it's so sensitive. Today I felt uncomfortable for the first time. It went away after five or ten minutes. Now I feel fine.

GUPTA: On this morning, Navratilova had her tennis partner by her side.

NOVOTNA: The last drive she was very happy. She was walking up the street. She had the biggest smile on her face already. She's like, last one, one more to go.

NAVRATILOVA: The last minute when I was on the table, I wanted to rebel and just get off. I wanted to run away, but I stayed there. I didn't want to give the nurses a heart attack. But I wanted to control it instead of it controlling me. I ended up being a good girl, as usual and stay there had.

I'm like rocky. I'm dancing!

As soon as she was out of there she was so happy, so relieved. I told her, I hope that you will never have to go through this again.

NAVRATILOVA: Everybody's so excited. I'm getting so many texts and e-mails. Last day, hallelujah! We're going to have a party tonight to celebrate. It's a different kind of celebration, but a celebration nevertheless. It was like saying to the machine, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you. I'm out of here. Never again. I'm never going to see you again. Done. Finished.


GUPTA: A circle of close friends celebrate Martina Navratilova's milestone. Her radiation treatments finally finished.

NAVRATILOVA: The doctor said yesterday that I may feel some depression now that it's finished and I have nothing else to do. No way am I going to be depressed. I'm so happy. I have been waiting for a long time.

GUPTA: Like all women who have been diagnosed with cancer, she will see her doctor regularly for follow ups to ensure there is no recurrence. She'll also have a mammogram every six months.

NAVRATILOVA: Just being in the waiting room here and seeing all the women. Half of them have a wig on. They're all marked, you know. We have the same markings. The strength of women really came through for me in this. Just thankful again that I caught it when I did, that I didn't wait another year. Oh, I'll just do that mammogram later and followed up. I did things I was supposed to do and now I'm done with it. I'll be meticulous now about going to the doctor, getting the six-month and one-year check-ups. I'm not going to let that lapse again.

GUPTA: Two days after her final radiation treatment in Paris, Navratilova returns to Wimbledon. It's a familiar trip, one she's made every year since 1973.

NAVRATILOVA: I'm feeling great. I'm feeling better every day. Yeah, physically and emotionally. I really feel like I'm picking myself up. I'm looking forward to getting on the court with my energy level now almost back to normal.

GUPTA: Navratilova and Novotna won all three of their matches and have earned a place in the final.


GUPTA: At the age of 53, there is yet another entry in Wimbledon's history books for Martina Navratilova. This time with Novotna by her side.


GUPTA: With the fans on their feet, Navratilova and Novotna celebrate their title with one final victory lap.

NAVRATILOVA: Now I'm happy that I get to rest and sort of take care of myself. I really hadn't had a chance to cry. Even since I was diagnosed I have been pretty nonstop. I'm glad to have some time in July and August to myself and really reset the clock. You know, re-evaluate everything. I think -- a lot of people still thought it was a much more serious surgery and chemo and all this. It was just radiation. "Just" radiation. So I feel I escaped the big "C." That's a scary word. I learned a lot. You know, I hope I don't have to go through something like that for a long time. But if it happens again, I'll be ready.