By Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi
DEAR Martina (Navratilova),
I am so sorry to learn that you have breast cancer but I am very heartened to know how resolute you have been in fighting it.
In 1978, at the age 22, you won the first tennis Grand Slam Ladies Singles title at Wimbledon. You then went on to win 17 more Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam women's doubles titles (an all time record) and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles title. Your highest ranking was No. 1 (in July 1978) and your career titles stand at 168, an all-time record for men or women.
Billie Jean King said this of you, 'She's the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles tennis player who has ever lived.'
I have followed your tennis career closely since you turned pro in 1975 and my, what a trajectory it has taken. But it is something more than your achievements in tennis that has captivated and impressed me.
Like you, I passionately fight for causes that promote civil liberties and human rights. Causes that aim to make our society just and humane. But, unlike you, I am an armchair crusader, comfortably churning out articles and op-eds. You, on other hand, take your fight to the courts and the streets. I am speaking of your involvement in animal rights, underprivileged children and gay rights. I am with you all the way in your fight against totalitarianism, be it the "eastern" or the "western" model.
In 1992, you filed a lawsuit against Amendment 2, a ballot proposition in Colorado designed to deny gays and lesbians legal protection from discrimination. In the same year, you spoke before the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. In 2000, you were the recipient of the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian activist/ lobbying group in the US. I could go on with the accolades but I must now turn to an important and pressing matter in your life.
You underwent a routine mammogram in January this year. A suspicious shadow was discerned and a biopsy showed that it was a ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) of the breast. DCIS is a cancer that has little, if any, potential of spreading.
Following your lumpectomy (a surgery where we conserve the breast and only remove the tumour), your oncologist recommended radiotherapy only. I agree with his advice. You gamely and willingly underwent six weeks of radiotherapy to the breast (once a day, four to five times a week).
Amazingly, you won the French Open Legends final while you were undergoing radiotherapy. In fact, you would start your day in the hospital receiving radiotherapy, commentate at tennis matches in the afternoon and then play tennis in the evening.
This is exactly what I tell my patients. Live your life as you always have. Listen to your body (what it is capable of, what it is not), never to your hang-ups and superstitions. You also won the Wimbledon legends title with Jana Novotna soon after completing radiotherapy. The crowd rose to their feet.
The recent CNN documentary about your fight with cancer, Martina: My Toughest Opponent must have been watched by tens of millions. Many would have been moved by your grit and determination. I hope your message ("Go for an annual mammogram") came through because it may have been lost in all the hype and hoopla of television.
I also hope two clips during the documentary did not make an impression on the audience. In one clip, you were seen, anguished in close-up, to say, "Cancer, that's the scariest word." Cancer is not and should not be the scariest word. Cancer is one hundred words, i.e. there are approximately a hundred different cancer scenarios.
In some cases, cancer kills within a year. In many other cases, like yours, cancer is eminently curable.
In the other clip, you commented on the extreme fatigue you suffered as a result of breast radiotherapy. I am truly surprised, Martina. I have been treating cancer patients for three decades. For most cancer patients undergoing breast radiotherapy, severe fatigue is rare. Mild fatigue, yes. Perhaps, and understandably, CNN wanted to embellish the human aspect of your story.
My dear Martina, you will do well in your fight with cancer. The chances of the cancer recurring is less than 1%. Please continue with a yearly mammogram, and equally important, continue to play tennis and give us more of your playful, poised, and precise performances. Continue your fight for those without a voice, for those who are discriminated against and for those who seek justice.
You have a permanent place in my pantheon of heroes.
Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi is a consultant oncologist.