Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova is eager to use her personal experience with the early detection of breast cancer to help save lives.
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, Navratilova is encouraging women to prioritize their annual mammograms, especially after screening numbers are down compared to pre-COVID rates.
In fact, several 2020 studies revealed that an alarming number: About 50% of women put off their recommended breast cancer screenings due to COVID-19 concerns.
This is such a major issue because experts agree that breast cancer is 90% curable if it is detected early.
Navratilova’s outreach is being done in conjunction with Hologic, a global leader in women’s health initiatives. The company is also an innovative medical technology company and the pioneer of 3D mammography. Hologic partnered with the Women’s Tennis Association on several major initiatives to champion women’s health globally. Throughout the WTA season, Hologic is making contributions to WTA Charities’ ACEing Cancer program—a philanthropic program dedicated to supporting the fight against cancers affecting women.
Navratilova’s focus is on early detection and prioritizing one’s own health.
“We are super busy and great multi-taskers, we do lots of important things, but I don’t know what’s more important than your health,” Navratilova exclusively tells Parade.com. “The sooner you find out what’s going on with your body the better the outcome. It really is amazing to me that we prioritize everything, but we frequently put ourselves last.”
Read on for how Martina Navratilova’s screening detected her early onset breast cancer 12 years ago and why she is urging women to put their breast health and overall health as a top priority.
Let’s start with your advocacy for breast cancer awareness and what this means to you.
Well, 12 years ago, when I was 52, I was thrown into this when I finally had my mammogram. They saw something and so I had a biopsy, and then they said it should be nothing, and then it was something—so it was a shock to the system. Being an athlete, being very healthy, and having always lived an extremely healthy lifestyle I thought, “How is this possible?” But clearly, cancer doesn’t care about that.
When it happened to me, I realized it had been over four years between my yearly exams because I was traveling and changing doctors, and I wasn’t playing anymore so I wasn’t paying as much attention to my body as I should have, and I let my yearly exams slide. It was a shock, but I thought this is a good opportunity for me to try to make a difference for some women who also kind of let their annual mammograms slide.
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Women are so busy juggling their careers, families, other relationships and responsibilities. Are there one or two messages you want to share about their mammograms, early detection and taking care of themselves?
Well, women are very good at making lists because we have to get organized and we have to multitask. We’re doing so many different things. So, we make a list. When you get this notice about the mammograms and it’s your yearly checkup time do you put it on the list? Do you put it at No. 1? Probably not.
So I would say when that notice comes, put it on the list as the most important thing because it is. If you keep sliding it away and keep postponing, it could cost you your life.
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The pandemic clearly prompted women to put off mammograms and other health matters, which can have dire consequences.
Well, obviously the pandemic put everything kind of on hold. Before we had a vaccination that resulted in better outcomes, when you get COVID, many women didn’t want to go get a mammogram because chances are nothing’s going on and you could catch COVID in the hospital. So people just put it on the back burner for good reasons, but I think once the vaccinations started kicking in there really was no reason not to go and get checked out. We’ve run out of excuses not to go for our yearly checkups.
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Let’s talk about your life as a role model for generations of women in tennis and beyond, both on and off the tennis court.
We have a lot more role models today or even 20 years ago—and 50 or 100 years ago—because back then women weren’t allowed to do most of the things that men were doing. And that still is the case because women are often discouraged, or certainly not encouraged, to go into certain fields. Whether it’s tech, math, or engineering. It still is a man’s world in many different fields. But the role models are much more plentiful, and that is a positive sign.
There are a lot more women in positions of power, whether it’s politics or finance, celebrities or athletes. It is still a bit easier for girls to see themselves in those positions, and that, I think, is massive. They don’t have to pave their own way, it’s much easier to follow in somebody’s footsteps. Things have changed, but we still have a long way to go. Anyway, it’s nice to be a part of pushing that ball forward for women.
When you meet other tennis players, what questions do they ask you?
The funny thing is most of them don’t ask. I still find that peculiar. But maybe we’re just too polite and not confident enough. Maybe they’re afraid of asking the wrong question. There’s no such thing. I always tell my kids better ask too many questions than not enough. I’d rather give you too much information than not enough.
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What advice do you have for the next generation of women’s tennis players?
I’d say surround yourself with good people because whatever you are trying to achieve it’s a team effort. You cannot do anything all on your own.
Don’t be afraid to fail because you will learn from it. Follow your gut. If you really feel you want to do something, do it. If it doesn’t work out that’s OK because you will learn from it and you won’t have regrets. And you can say, “OK, I can do it better next time,” or you say “this won’t work at all and I’ll do something else.” So that’s OK. That old expression nothing ventured, nothing gained is very true. We only regret the things that we didn’t do.
I’d say go for it and don’t think you have to have all the possibilities covered before you do something because chances are things aren’t going to go according to plan anyway and you have to figure a way out.
Women have a tendency to over-analyze and we don’t volunteer to do a project the boss tells us to do until we know we can do it all by ourselves. When the guys just raise their hands and say “Oh, yeah, I can do 20% myself and I’m asking for 80% help with this guy or that guy.” So don’t be afraid to raise your hand and just go for it!
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What was your reaction to Serena Williams’ announcement of her retirement?
Well, it had been coming for a while. COVID certainly didn’t help her because time was not a friend to either Serena Williams gold Roger Federer. They weren’t able to play as much as they wanted to play and were only getting older. It was expected, but it was still sad. It’s the end of an era, a massive era. You know it’s coming but it still is like, “Really?” You just kind of get used to having Serena around and the new generation is stepping in, but still, she leaves a big hole.
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During difficult times in your life and your career, what do you think helped you persevere?
For me, the love of the sport really came through. There was never a time when I didn’t want to play tennis. I think it’s important for people to do what they love and they’ll be fulfilled and that way the ride is enjoyable. I never really felt down or depressed. If I lost too many matches, I just wanted to figure out how can I get better. I always enjoyed the process, and that’s why it was never a big deal to me when things weren’t going well.
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How important in your view is making connections? Are women finding their own version of the so-called “old boys club?”
It’s a competitive sport, but I feel like in business and tennis and in life that the old boys’ network always helped each other. Then when we found women networking and connecting and wanting to help each other.
How important do you think that is?
I think it’s massive. It’s important to get help and to give help. It’s important for women who have gotten somewhere to then give a leg up to the next generation. I think women do that for the most part. We still get this image of being catty and pushing women down and not helping women enough. I’m sorry, how many men help every other man? Nobody. Everybody wants to get ahead. But when the guy kicks another guy down, he’s really tough. But when a woman does that, she’s a bitch. Again, there is a different measuring stick for women and men.
Now that we have many more women in those positions of power that can help, I think most of them do. And they want to pass it on. They want to pass it on to their children, they want to pass it on to the next generation within their company. Most of them, anyway. The good ones do.
Again, it’s nice to have women in those places now. We still need more. Like on boards of directors. Most companies do not have enough women on their boards, they don’t have enough diversity within their companies. How are they supposed to help their constituents or their customers when that customer base is very diversified but the people that make decisions are all older, white men? Hello? I think for the most part women do a really good job. What I see is women that I’ve seen in those positions of power do a great job with the new generation of women.
What does it mean to you that you’re still inspiring people after all these years?
I think it means that when athletes speak, people have a tendency to listen more than when business leaders or other celebrities speak. We were athletes first; we became celebrities because we were great athletes. We got ahead because we were better than the other guy. We didn’t get there because somebody liked us or because we looked good or because we knew somebody.
Athletes earn their spots in the limelight, and I think that’s why the general public seems to listen to us more. This means that we have a great platform, so I just try to use it for the better. It means that when I’m diagnosed with breast cancer, I know I saved some lives with that because I got direct responses from people that said, “Thank God I listened to you and I went for my mammogram, and while they found breast cancer , I’m OK.” That means the world.
Are you playing tennis these days?
I will play again once the weather gets a little bit cooler in Florida. It’s just too hot right now.
If you had a couple of hours just to chill out, how would you spend it?
Skiing. My preference is skiing powder and virgin powder. I love skiing, that’s what I would be doing. There’s nothing like it. It’s like floating on clouds, weightless, going down the mountain at 20 or 30 miles an hour.
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