Sending out love to former British tennis star Elena Baltacha as she battles liver cancer. The Ukrainian-born “Bally” rose to British No. 1, winning 11 singles titles and four doubles titles despite a knee injury and being diagnosed at age 19 with primary sclerosing cholangitis. This is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease of the bile duct that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or cancer, as it has in Baltacha’s case.
This summer, Andy Murray and Martina Navratilova – a former world No 1 and breast cancer survivor – will lead a group of players in a “Rally for Bally” fundraiser to aid Elena, who is now a tennis coach in Ipswich, England.
Liver cancer is particularly treacherous, but a cancer diagnosis of any kind is devastating. How much more poignant it must be for an athlete, whose very instrument of expression – his body – is betrayed by it.
In my new novel “Water Music,” one of the main characters faces a cancer diagnosis and chooses to continue his athletic career as best he can for as long as he can.
In this, I was inspired by John Baker (1944-70), a University of New Mexico track star who turned around a losing girls’ track team despite having terminal testicular cancer and lived a year longer than anticipated in the process. His story, recounted in William Buchanan’s “A Shining Season,” was made into an equally moving 1979 TV-movie of the same title, starring Timothy Bottom.
I wish for Elena Baltacha the same courage – but a far better outcome.