Sister’s death from ovarian cancer led to early detection for tennis legend Chris Evert

Chris Evert dominated women's tennis in the 1970s and 80s. Her win-loss record in singles play is the best of any pro player, male or female, in history. But her toughest match was taking on ovarian cancer, often known as ”the silent killer.” Evert joined Amna Nawaz for a discussion about her journey, her health and what's ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the U.S. Open tennis tournament continues this week in New York, we turn to a conversation Amna Nawaz had there with tennis legend Chris Evert.

    Evert's win-loss record and singles matches is the best of any pro player, male or female, in history. But perhaps her toughest match is taking on ovarian cancer, often known as the silent killer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is where you must have so many memories as a teenager. Majors here.

  • Chris Evert, Former Professional Tennis Player:

    I won — yes, I won it six times.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chris Evert dominated women's tennis in the 1970s and '80s. Her career stats are staggering. She won a record six U.S. Open titles, tied only by Serena Williams.

  • Announcer:

    Madam Chris Evert Lloyd.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seven French Open titles, 18 major championships in all. Became the first player, male or female, to win 1,000 singles matches. And to this day, holds the record for the second most career wins, behind Martina Navratilova.

    Evert grew up in a tennis family in Florida. Her dad taught all the kids to play on public courts. Now 67 and herself the mother of three sons, Evert spent most of her life in the white-hot spotlight. She became known for her tough, seemingly unemotional outer shell. But nothing, she says, could have prepared her for the loss of her sister, Jeanne Evert Dubin, who played on the tour with Chris for a while.

    Jeanne's ovarian cancer was detected late. She lived for two more years and died in 2020. Jeanne had tested negative for the harmful variant of the BRCA1 gene, but her blood was stored in a lab, in case knowledge or data of new variants became available and as genetic testing evolved.

    Two years after her death, Jeanne's blood tested BRCA-positive, a warning bell for possible ovarian or breast cancer predisposition in the family. A call from her doctor took Chris Evert's life down an unexpected path, ovarian cancer, but caught early, stage 1C.

    Today, Evert is back courtside as a commentator for ESPN, coaching and mentoring the next generation. We talked about her journey, her health, and what's ahead.

    It's been three months since you finished your chemotherapy. How are you feeling today?

  • Chris Evert:

    I'm feeling a lot better than three months ago. Let's put it that way.

    I mean, as time goes on and I'm able to get a little more energy, exercise a little bit more, I'm feeling better and better.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think a lot of people know chemotherapy is brutal. How did you get through it?

  • Chris Evert:

    Andy, my former husband, took me to all six chemos. And he was really supportive.

    I had a little nausea and fatigue, not tiredness, but fatigue is a different feeling. I had that for like five days, and then I would have two weeks of feeling OK. And I could go to my tennis academy and coach, and I could do pretty much normal things. So, I feel very lucky.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lucky not only because they caught her cancer early, but because they caught it at all.

  • Chris Evert:

    The geneticist called and said, we retested Jeanne's blood and another variant has come up, and now she's BRCA-positive. So you're going to have to take the BRCA test.

    And so all of our siblings took it. I went the next day and took the BRCA test and 10 days later discovered that I was positive. I went to the doctor. He said: "OK, you have to have a hysterectomy. You don't need the reproductive organs. So, the best thing, the safest thing is just to get everything out."

    I encourage anybody, any woman not to be afraid of having a hysterectomy. But what happened was surprising after that. My doctor called me three days later and said: "We are really shocked about this, but our findings are that you had ovarian cancer and you had cancer in your fallopian tubes."

    And I was like, whoa. But I didn't feel anything. And that's why this is an insidious, ugly cancer, because you don't feel any effects whatsoever. And many times when women are diagnosed, they're already in stage four.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have just gone through a full hysterectomy.

  • Chris Evert:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are you thinking?

  • Chris Evert:

    I think I just called on my sister's strength. Four or five days later, when I got the call, my doctor is calling, oh, I have good news.

    So, I mean, I was so relieved, and — but I got a second opinion. So, right now, they're looking at 90 percent to 95 percent chance that cancer will not come back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ninety to 95.

  • Chris Evert:

    Ninety to 95 chance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What's it like for you to say that number?

  • Chris Evert:

    I wish it was 100 percent.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Chris Evert:

    But I feel very grateful. Because of my sister's death, I'm alive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Your sister was diagnosed so late. And she lived for another two years, I believe, after that?

  • Chris Evert:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you feel like you got to say everything to her you needed to say?

  • Chris Evert:

    No. I don't think you ever feel that way. She was like the wind beneath my wings, that song.

    And she was so proud of me, and supportive of me, and never envious or jealous. She was just a wonderful sister. And I wish I could I could have told her more. But, sometimes, when somebody is really sick, that's not the time to tell them, because then they start to feel worse. They know it's the end.

    But I think she knows. I mean, I talked to her every day, and I think she knows that now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What's one thing you wish you could tell her today?

  • Chris Evert:

    That I would tell her? Oh, God, you just know to answer — ask these questions.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Chris Evert:

    Oh, my God. I'm sorry. I talk about this so much. And I have never cried like this.

    But I just can't believe how strong she was, and that she never complained. And she had ports, and she had incisions all over her body. And she was down to 80 pounds. And I saw her go through this. And she would either be quiet or she tried to muster up a smile.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You are making me cry now too.

  • Chris Evert:

    No, it's good. I want to be emotional.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This vulnerability is something Evert spent decades shielding from public view.

    I went back, and I read some of the earlier coverage of your career, the way the mostly male press corps, I think, would talk about you and write about you. And there were photographers saying, oh, she's impossible to take a good picture of because she never smiles. And they gave you labels like ice princess.

  • Chris Evert:

    Sure.

    Look, when I grew up and started playing on the tour, I was 15 years old. And the more I read that, the more I got to be that way. I never had the freedom, I think, to develop on my own terms, because I always had the press saying I was somebody else.

    When I look at the young women today on the court, I see they have come a long way. They're fearless. They're emotional. They have a lot of power .They feel the power. They have a lot of respect.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You look at the way Serena has navigated her career, you look at Naomi Osaka, having conversations around mental health…

  • Chris Evert:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … protecting their own privacy, all these kinds of things, do you ever look at that and say, I wish I'd had that?

  • Chris Evert:

    I grew up in the '60s, played in the '70s. They were taboo subjects. You didn't talk about it. You didn't talk about being gay. And you didn't talk about controversial subjects at all.

    That was the way the society was, the culture was here in America, maybe here in the world. But now women are just owning themselves. And they're empowering themselves. And we're reaching more and more equality with the men.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How would you describe the place that the game holds today in your life?

  • Chris Evert:

    I have so many ways of being involved in the game. I mean, I love telling people of me being on center court in the finals, what it feels like, what the pressure feels like. I mean, I love that.

    I think what I love even more is the mentoring part. I'm very involved with the USTA Foundation, which is all about under-resourced kids combining tennis and education, and giving them a safe place to go to after school, talking to them, mentoring them, seeing the joy on their face.

    An extension further, I have my own tennis academy with my brother.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Chris Evert:

    But, still, the same applies, the mentoring. I try to explain to them to embrace the pressure, to go with it and not to try to fight it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Chris Evert:

    I have gotten a lot of wonderful things out of tennis. And now I'm feeling probably better by giving and sharing my experiences and knowing I'm helping kids. To me, that's the most important thing at this last third of my life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Analyzing tennis matches and mentoring the next generation at some 250 programs for the U.S. Tennis Association Foundation around the country, Evert remains in the game.

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