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As Billie Jean King once said, Martina Navratilova has always been comfortable in her own skin, which made some of her previous public transformations easier than they would be for us mere mortals.
Navratilova, unwilling to submit to personal or governmental repression, made the difficult decision to defect from then-communist Czechoslovakia as a teenager. She spoke openly about her sexuality when that kind of honesty was still novel in our culture. She rejected the notion that women of a certain age should bow to inevitable decline, came back to compete in professional tennis in her 40s and wrote a book about her holistic approach to fitness titled "Shape Your Self.''
I predict that Navratilova will be just as forthright and influential in her latest role -- breast cancer awareness advocate -- even though it was forced on her.
Navratilova revealed in several interviews Wednesday that she is being treated for ductal carcinoma in situ, with which she was diagnosed in February. The cancer has been deemed Stage 0, which means it has not spread, and her outlook is apparently excellent. She had a lumpectomy last month and expects to begin a round of radiation treatments in May -- perhaps even during the French Open, at which she plans to continue working as a commentator for Tennis Channel.
The multitasking is typical of Navratilova, who admitted she was gutted by the news at first but quickly resumed her regularly scheduled life. She appeared in the charity exhibition for Haitian earthquake relief at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and participated in a competitive bike race in Hawaii.
Navratilova confided in her longtime doubles partner Pam Shriver after she got over the first shock of her diagnosis. Shriver, who lost her sister, her father and her first husband to cancer, said she's confident Navratilova will write a different ending.
"As you would expect, she seems very educated about it,'' said Shriver, now an ESPN analyst. "If there's anyone who's more on top of her body, I don't know who it is. She's going to use this as a teaching moment to remind women of the importance of early detection.
"I've had a lot of friends who caught it early and lived happily ever after. She's going to be a bright spot in my life, living with cancer and becoming a cancer survivor.''
What Navratilova's situation should underscore again, for all of us, is that cancer is an equal-opportunity disease that attacks the most fit along with the negligent. Navratilova truly treated her body as a temple, and nutrition, sleep and limit-pushing exercise were the tenets of her faith. That's a great way to live, but it doesn't necessarily keep the wolf from the door.
"The overwhelming part for me was that, here is someone who's always been such a remarkable physical specimen -- she's always done everything right,'' said close friend and ESPN analyst Mary Carillo. "It shows everyone is vulnerable. Everyone.''
Navratilova had her surgery on Carillo's birthday last month, then called Carillo the next day to apologize for missing the occasion. "There was no soft lecture from her -- she asked me, 'When was your last mammogram?''' Carillo said, laughing. "So I signed myself up. She will save lives.''
Mary Joe Fernandez, whose mother has had a clean bill of health since undergoing treatment for breast cancer four years ago, said she's confident Navratilova will bring "the best attitude possible'' to her medical battle plan.
Bob Bryan, hand picked by Navratilova to play with her in her final pro tournament, the 2006 U.S. Open, recalled that she is the only mixed-doubles partner he's ever had who scouted opponents, sitting in the stands and taking notes. "If anyone's going to be prepared for this fight, it's her,'' he said. "I wish her the best.''
It wasn't a shock that Navratilova would choose to go public with her circumstances -- she is, after all, the AARP's official health and fitness ambassador at a grizzled 53 years old. But it is surprising that one of sports' greatest detail people let four years go by between mammograms.
She hammered that point home over and over in her public statements Wednesday, how foolish she'd been, and how lucky. Navratilova's doctors think the cancer might have started within the past year. If the disease had had more time to develop, she would be in much more danger now.
It might be the only time in Navratilova's adult life that she took a potential opponent lightly. That won't happen again. Get ready for her to nag the rest of us to follow suit. I would expect nothing less of one of sports' most distinctive voices.