U.S. SENIOR WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Fellow Players – and Golf Itself – Helped Sustain Cancer Survivors
October 7, 2018 | VERO BEACH, Fla.
By Lisa D. Mickey
Several players in the field of the 57th U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club share a distinct, yet unenviable bond.
At least six of the 132 women in the championship field are cancer survivors.
Each one of those survivors gives credit to golf for enabling them to sometimes escape the scariness of a cancer diagnosis or treatment. They also credit the support they received from fellow competitors for helping them stay strong.
“I never joined a cancer support group – which I would advise most people to do – because I had so many golf friends to help,” said Patsy Ehret, 74, of Stuart, Fla. “They would all sign cards at tournaments and mail them to me.”
Ehret needed hearty encouragement three different times. She was diagnosed 12 years ago with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which required treatment for three years and involved extensive chemotherapy.
Four years later, the nonsmoker was diagnosed with lung cancer, which was discovered through the regular CT scans (computer tomography) she receives for the lymphoma. A pea-size tumor in her lung was observed for nearly three years before surgeons made five puncture incisions and removed a section of her lung.
Bad news struck again when Ehret was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2016, requiring both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She underwent three blood transfusions, a total of 40 CT scans and once lost most of her hair, but the fiery Floridian remained dogged in keeping her focus away from cancer.
“I never stopped playing golf,” she said. “It was my golf game that gave me something to look forward to because there was always another tournament ahead.”
A six-time winner of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Women’s Golf Association Championship, Tama Caldabaugh could barely believe it when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one month before her 50th birthday.
She underwent a complete hysterectomy and started chemotherapy in January 2013. By spring, she was competing in another Jacksonville championship.
“For me, chemo kind of felt like a bad hangover, so I reasoned that I could feel bad sitting inside or feel bad outdoors playing golf,” said Caldabaugh, 54. “Golf was my escape.”
The physical act of playing golf wasn’t always easy with the muscle stiffness she experienced. Caldabaugh saved energy when she played by taking no practice swings, simply stepping up to each shot and hitting the ball.
Caldabaugh also felt a need to play golf to make a statement about her health and her determination to maintain normal activities.
“I wanted to play in tournaments for me, but I also wanted to play to show people that I was OK and that you can manage cancer, work through it and continue to live your life managing it,” she added.
And while October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Caldabaugh notes that September was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. She hand-delivered brochures to doctor’s offices in her city about ovarian cancer.
Breast cancer has a family history for players Marie-Therese Torti of Quebec, Canada, and Susan Keane of Orlando, Fla.
Torti’s mother had breast cancer and Marie-Therese has been undergoing mammograms since age 40. She was diagnosed at age 49 and underwent surgery in May 2012, followed by radiation treatments.
“Golf saved me,” said Torti, 55. “I tried to focus on something else and I had great support from my family and friends in golf.”
Both of Keane’s sisters and her mother have had breast cancer and her 30-year-old niece was diagnosed two years ago. Keane was diagnosed in April 2014, which was followed by a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
Keane said that qualifying for her first Senior Women’s Amateur this year is both a milestone for her health as well as a golf goal she was able to make happen in spite of her health setback.
“I’m actually making a more conscious effort to check things off my bucket list sooner, rather than later,” said Keane, 54. “This experience just reinforces that life is short and anything can happen.”
As recently as last year, Debbie Johnson of Stamford, Conn., and Claudia Pilot of Lake Shore, Minn., wrestled with their respective breast cancer diagnoses.
Johnson was diagnosed in December 2016 and underwent surgery in February 2017, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“When I got the diagnosis, I said, ‘Well, let’s get on with this because I have a tournament at the end of May and I want to be ready,’” said Johnson, 55, who played in that Connecticut Women’s Open on schedule. “Golf gave me a good goal, which helped me ignore what I was going through.”
Pilot’s difficult 2017 season started with an episode of Lyme disease after she was bitten by a tick in July. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, which she credits to the higher-resolution images provided by a 3-D mammogram.
Because it was early-stage breast cancer, she underwent breast conservation surgery (formerly called lumpectomy) and five weeks of radiation treatment. Her family and golf friends in Minnesota and Arizona rallied her spirits and helped her qualify for this championship for the first time in four years.
“A year ago at this time, I wasn’t even able to play 18 holes, so I’m very thankful just to be here this week,” Pilot said. “I’ve tried to focus on the positives.”
And while these cancer survivors will forever share the bond of their experience, all agree the support they have received from their fellow golfers is the true prize.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work appears frequently on USGA digital channels.