Cells Do Respond to Your Improvised ‘Mantra’

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Victoria Duval, 19, last week in Bradenton, Fla. She learned that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014. Thirteen months after her last match, she will compete this week at a tournament in Landisville, Pa. Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

When Victoria Duval learned last year that she had cancer, the only thing she knew to do was win.

Duval, then 18, received a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, the day before her first qualifying match at Wimbledon. Despite the news, she stayed and played.

“I didn’t really see another way out at the time, other than to try to win every match to avoid going home, because I didn’t want to have to face the reality of what was going on,” Duval said last week in an interview.

“I didn’t really realize how brave I was until I came home and everyone in my family and my friends, they told me that if they got told the same thing the day before they had to play a match, they wouldn’t have been able to finish, because that’s like the biggest emotional blow you can hear. To me, I was just thinking that I needed to keep winning so I didn’t go home. For me, to keep playing was easier.”

Duval kept playing, and winning, taking the three matches needed to qualify for the Wimbledon main draw as well as her first match in the tournament. But when she was in the locker room during a rain delay before her second-round match, Duval’s thoughts began to wander to her grim future.

“It was the first time I really thought about what I had to face when I went home, which was a terrible idea,” she said. “I went on my phone, and I looked up chemotherapy, and I looked up what exactly goes into it. And I just started hysterically crying because I didn’t know if I could do this. When I went out on the court, I played that whole match crying, and it was kind of a nightmare. And then when we went to the doctor, he said all the side effects I saw online, I was like, Oh, boy, this is it.”

While her ranking soared into the top 100 for the first time on the strength of her performance at Wimbledon, Duval began chemotherapy treatment. She said she found herself in a darker place than she had been before.

“Sometimes I felt so terrible after the chemo, I just sat on my bed and said: ‘I’m not sick! I’m not sick! I’m not sick!’ ” she said. “I repeated that 10, 20, 30, 50 times, and guess what? By the end I felt fine.”

Duval and her family also drew from what they had learned from a previous crisis, when her father, Jean-Maurice, was nearly killed in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He was eventually pulled alive from the rubble after 11 hours, but he had sustained lasting paralysis in one arm.

“My dad went through the same thing as well, and gained an appreciation for life,” Duval said. “His chances of survival meant that he shouldn’t be here, and now he makes the most of every moment. For me, it’s even more special because I get a chance to play. I know that it could easily not be the case. I’m just super grateful.”

Fellow players offered what help they could. Duval’s idol, Venus Williams, was especially attentive.

“Venus actually reached out quite a bit, which I was so shocked and so amazed by,” Duval said. “I love her so much, and the fact that she took the time out of her busy, busy life to send me a text at least once a week or so, that was really incredible.”

Ross Hutchins, a retired British doubles specialist who had his own battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also contacted Duval, whom he had never met. “She was a shining light,” he said. “What a personality.”

Duval first stepped back onto the court last October, but weakened by chemotherapy, she found that nothing came quickly. Gradually, 30 minutes became an hour; an hour became 90 minutes. Two weeks ago, she played a full three-set match in practice for the first time.

“I always knew how strong of a person I was, but it definitely reinforced the true grit I have inside of me,” Duval said. “To come out of anything that severe you have to be extremely resilient, and so strong mentally. To be able to start playing again, that took even more.”

Thirteen months after her last match, Duval will compete for the first time since her comeback this week at a small tournament in Landisville, Pa., then in the qualifying draw of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. She has not yet received word about the United States Open wild card she hopes to receive.

The last time Duval played in Flushing Meadows, in 2013, she stunned the former champion Samantha Stosur and quickly became the darling of the tournament. Last year, in the midst of her chemotherapy, it was too difficult for her to watch.

“There’s nothing quite like it, being an American at the U.S. Open,” Duval said. “Especially after all I’ve been through, I think there’s going to be so, so much support, and I’m really looking forward to it. The U.S. Open is the closest tournament to my heart. That’s where my biggest memories in tennis are, so I can’t wait to make a few more.”

Correction: August 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Haiti earthquake. It occurred in 2010, not 2011.

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